Tailored to young black men, program to cut recidivism rates may come to Pa.

Guy Wheeler (left) and Darryl Turpin are founders of H.E.A.T., a holistic and Afrocentric approach to help young black men stay out of the criminal justice system. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Guy Wheeler (left) and Darryl Turpin are founders of H.E.A.T., a holistic and Afrocentric approach to help young black men stay out of the criminal justice system. (Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY)

Back in 1992, a national expert in substance abuse and criminal behavior helped to start one of the first drug courts in the country in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. But early on, Guy Wheeler noticed a disturbing trend among the young men.

“I recognized that all the African-Americans were leaving the program,” he said.

Wheeler decided that to reach young black men — and keep them out of the criminal justice system — he needed to tailor an intervention program that spoke directly to them.

That program became H.E.A.T. — Habilitation, Empowerment, Accountability Therapy — a holistic and Afrocentric approach to address deep-rooted issues centering on childhood and intergenerational trauma.

Wheeler and co-founder, Darryl Turpin, presented their work at the annual training for the American Probation and Parole Association in Philadelphia. During the Monday session, the issue of racial disparities within the criminal justice system was front and center.

In Pennsylvania,  six of every 10 inmates are rearrested or incarcerated again within three years of their release from prison. A national study by the U.S. Department of Justice found that about 83 percent of prisoners in 30 states, including Pennsylvania, were rearrested within nine years of their release. For African-American males, that rate was 87 percent — the highest of any racial or ethnic group.

The H.E.A.T. approach, 12 years in the making, is designed specifically for black men age 18 to 29, Turpin said.

“We expect the participants who come to this intervention will be resistant,” Turpin told the room full of probation and parole officers Monday.

“If they hate you, don’t want to be there, are cussing you out … that’s exactly what we expect, and that’s exactly what we address,” he said.

The 9-month treatment begins with an orientation, then moves on to focus on the self, family and community. It touches on the history of slavery, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement.

“We saw that chronic adversity due to racism, oppression, and poverty — that those were being ignored as also things that cause trauma,” Turpin said.

But treatment alone is not enough, added Wheeler.

“We look at the concept that if a man does not have skills … he could be killed,” Wheeler said. “So we need to equip them and prepare them for the real world that they’re living in, just like anybody else.”

That includes preparation for job hunting, obtaining a GED or finding vocational training.

The program, now in 20 states, may expand to Pennsylvania, Wheeler said.

Erika Preuitt, president of the American Probation and Parole Association, said she wanted to highlight the work of the H.E.A.T. program because it’s able to build a bridge to young black men who have been hard to engage, and it does so in a culturally responsive way.

When Doug Marlowe, chief of science, law, and policy for the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, reviewed programs specifically designed for young African-American men, he came up short. Those he did find had never been studied, he said.

Early studies of H.E.A.T. show promising results for attendance and completion rates in drug courts, but the next step is a five-year study to determine whether it’s an evidence-based practice.

At this point, there’s no data on how H.E.A.T. participants fare over the long term.

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