By MaryEileen Croke and Sophia Rosenbaum

Sonja Okun is the founder and executive director of exalt, an organization that connects court-involved young people to paid internships. Photo by MaryEileen Croke.

Ashley Carroll traded shackles and a night in jail for a prom dress and a college education.

Two years ago, Carroll was caught stealing with her friends and said she wound up in Spofford Juvenile Center in the Bronx, which closed in 2011. Carroll’s probation officer told her she had potential, and recommended she participate in an internship-based program called Exalt.

“They go to your court dates whenever you have them, they help you with school work,” said Carroll, 18. “You can come for help whenever you need them. And we don’t have many programs like that so I think it’s really good.”

Like Carroll said, transitional programs that are successful are hard to come by. Exalt was key to her staying out of trouble because it focused on school and job training. Other programs like The Lineage Project have been able to help court-involved young people by using exercise to reduce stress. But these types of programs are constantly threatened by budget cuts.

Beth Navon, the executive director of The Lineage Project, said the program is constantly in demand because of its unconventional approach to helping young people in trouble.

“They find a kind of calm and quiet that they haven’t experienced very much,” she said. “They say they learned something after one day.”

But funding for programs like the Lineage Project is constantly at risk to be cut. The White House reported that the federal sequester cut funding for state juvenile justice programs by $21 million.

“If I had more funding, I would be in a lot more places,” Navon said. Since the recession in 2008, funding has decreased and Navon is unsure whether the organization will be affected by the sequester.

Exalt holds classes for young people to prepare them for internships. Students also receive help with school and college preparation. Photo by MaryEileen Croke.

Organizations like exalt, which arranges paid internship opportunities for young people in trouble with the courts, are working hard to return normalcy to young people’s lives and end the school-to-prison pipeline that advocates say exists in some areas of the city.

Carroll said exalt helped her focus on school and felt like the staff really cared about her success.

“They actually do help,” she said. “They’re so proud of me for getting into college and they’re excited for me for my prom. And it’s a good feeling.”

The night she spent in jail, Carroll remembers the heat drove her crazy. She was alone in her cell, but couldn’t go to the bathroom without a guard watching her. There was a window, but it didn’t open.

“Spofford was like solitary confinement,” she said. “I felt claustrophobic. I felt like I was going to pass out and hyperventilate.”

Sonja Okun, the founder and executive director of exalt, said it prepares students to get jobs and aim to keep them out of the system. She said Exalt hopes to encourage an attitude shift with its young people so they keep themselves out of trouble.

“Behavior change is a process, not an event,” Okun said.

While the number of incarcerated youth has decreased in recent years, recidivism rates are still high. For those who complete exalt’s program, Okun said the recidivism rate is low – around 6 percent are involved with the courts within two years. But the program is small, serving only about 165 teens per year.

Carroll is a success story. She completed the program at exalt, and now volunteers at its offices after school. She was accepted to the University of New Haven and will start this fall.

David Brotherton, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, said more programs should focus on providing real-world training for young people who have been through the system.

“We just need a much more comprehensive job and educational opportunity structure. We don’t guarantee them anything,” Brotherton said. “We should be guaranteeing kids some kind of work experience that leads to a job.”

Exalt helped Carroll prioritize what is important to her – family and school. Instead of worrying about getting in trouble with the police, she’s worrying about which prom dress to buy.

She is no longer in touch with her old troublemaker friends, and is proud of her new “crew.”

“I made completely new friends,” she said. “They all go to school.”