In his senior year of high school, Patrick DiPasquale (MSB ’20) visited his cousin at John Carroll University. While there, he joined his cousin for a visit to a local youth jail, where the older boy regularly played basketball as part of a school club. Patrick loved the experience: Everyone was his age, and it was easy to relate to them. When he got home, he started a similar club at his high school.
It was work Patrick wanted to continue when he arrived at Georgetown. Once again, he started his own program. This time, his cousin Mark (MSB ‘20) joined in, and the DiPasquales founded Georgetown Ballers. Though Georgetown hosts many organizations that work with incarcerated people, Georgetown Ballers was the first to work with incarcerated youth.
Three years in, the organization has over 50 members. On Sundays, seven students—some seasoned, some relatively new—get in a van and drive to the New Beginnings Youth Development Center, a juvenile detention facility in Maryland. They join residents for a game, then meet afterward to discuss a theme, like “success.” More than anything, these topics are meant as a starting point; the conversations are for the residents to direct.
Though this weekly interaction has become a regular part of life for the DiPasquale cousins, this spring, they will graduate, leaving behind the organization they started. They’ve learned what role a group like Georgetown Ballers can fill—and what problems remain even if they do their job well.
In the past decade, the juvenile justice system has come under intense scrutiny. In 2018, two out of three incarcerated youth were placed in the most restrictive facilities—-despite federal guidance suggesting that these facilities be reserved for those who have committed serious, violent crimes. A quarter of incarcerated youth were incarcerated for failing to meet the standards of probation (i.e. not complying with a court order to attend school) or for doing something that is only illegal for minors – such as drinking alcohol or running away from home.
As of 2015, in many states up to 80% of detained youth are rearrested. Some suggest that this happens not in spite of detention, but because of it. According to one 2015 study, when juvenile offenders are placed in detention (rather than receiving an alternative sentence), their chances of reoffending as an adult rise by 23 percent.
New Beginnings was founded partly in response to these criticisms. The agency that runs the center, the D.C. Department of Youth Rehabilitation Services (DYRS), employs a “positive youth justice” model, which includes connecting residents to paid internships, substance abuse treatment, and, for some, service trips to the Dominican Republic. New Beginnings self-evaluates using a tool designed by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a child welfare watchdog and frequent critic of the juvenile detention system.
Their freshman year, the DiPasquales met with DYRS representatives to propose Georgetown Ballers be added to their programming. DYRS thought New Beginnings would fit well with their approach to juvenile justice, and within the year, Georgetown Ballers was making weekly trips to the facility.
Before going to New Beginnings, Mark had never been to a juvenile detention center. He had never been to a jail.
There was one part of the weekly programming that he knew well, though: basketball. For the Georgetown students and the New Beginnings residents, the game was “a common love.”
Many of the Georgetown students, Patrick says, were surprised by how easily they could relate to the residents of New Beginnings. Relationships certainly took some time; Patrick thought the residents were initially guarded, and understandably so. But everyone was close in age, and according to him, the conversations soon flowed freely.
Informality was the point, given that the group aimed to build social connections. “If it ever seems like we’re talking to them as a mentor then we’re doing something wrong,” Patrick said.
These conversations would happen in breakout sessions after the game. The residents talk about their interests—music, reading, sports—and about their futures. Some, Patrick says, are interested in college, others in trade school, still others in music.
But sometimes, the conversations touch on tougher topics. “The more powerful part of our program,” Patrick says, “is [when they] talk about some of the challenges they’ve faced, and some of the difficulties they might see when they go home.”
Mark’s approach in situations like this was to listen, but finding the right balance between asking questions and letting residents guide the conversation proved difficult at first.
“Finding that balance and fine line takes a long time,” Mark said. He had to get a feeling for it, and that only came as he got to know the residents better, and they him. “All our interactions have become familiar,” he said.
Patrick suggested that the regular contact enabled by the program allowed this trust to form. “You just have to continue to go back,” he said.
On the other hand, once the residents leave, Mark and Patrick hope they never return. “Our hope is that we never see them again in the center,” said Patrick, echoing the goal of the center itself.
When he was in high school, Patrick ended up seeing some of his closest friends from the center return after a few months after being released. “That was pretty frustrating,” he said. “I knew they were great people, and it was just hard to see them back in that same situation.”
Patrick also noted that residents are often returning to environments of desperation. Poverty is central—a 2017 study found when poverty was eliminated, teenagers were no more likely to commit violent crimes than any adult demographic. So is trauma—up to 90% of youth involved in the justice system have experienced a traumatic event, according to the Department of Justice. The same study found that more than one in 10 had had PTSD within the past year.
Mark recalls a line from one of his classes on the criminal justice system that highlights the difficulties that organizations like New Beginnings face. A man formerly on death row came in to speak. “It’s hard,” he said, “to rehabilitate someone who has never been habilitated in the first place.”
The cousins graduate this spring. Though Mark plans on pursuing accounting, the more classes he takes on criminal justice, he says, “the more passionate about it I become.” Figuring out how to stay involved continues to be a challenge for him.
Likewise, Patrick isn’t immediately planning to go into juvenile justice, but he also wants to remain connected with the work. “It would definitely be difficult,” he says, “for the two of us to leave.”
While Mark and Patrick enter their new careers, residents at New Beginnings face far more uncertainty. The inequalities between the prospects of New Beginnings residents and Georgetown students have stuck with Patrick.“In the back of my head [I think that] these kids have the skills and knowledge to be able to do a lot of the things that the Georgetown students are doing.”
This post has been updated to reflect that the DiPasquales are cousins.