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Miami-Dade court program helps young inmates change their lives

It was a graduation without pomp and circumstance.

There was marching in combat boots. No gowns.

The remarks by Miami-Dade Circuit Judge Beth Bloom were full of the hallmarks common at any graduation. She spoke of goals and achievement and of the opportunity.

But were it not for the “I’m Ready” program, many of Monday’s graduates would not be anticipating their release from jail in a few short weeks.

The 13 young men in “I’m Ready’s’’ inaugural class had already been convicted of some crime and sentenced to boot camp. But each had some medical or psychological problem that made him ineligible.

Take, for example 20-year-old Franklin Robinson. After being sentenced to boot camp after he violated his probation, Robinson underwent several tests, including an EKG that showed there was difficulty pumping blood to his heart. That prevented him from being admitted to boot camp and could have meant him ending up back in jail with the general population.

Instead, he ended up at the six-month “I’m Ready’’ program, which offers youths ages 14-24 education and services. They undergo behavior modification, life skills, job training, counseling and treatment.

The day begins at 5 a.m. A routine of schooling and vocational training in automotive technology or carpentry carries them through until about 8 p.m.

“I’m Ready” participants are housed in a separate unit to accommodate program activities rather than with the general jail population. They are referred to as “students,’’ not “inmates.’’

“There is a reason why boot camp is able to reduce recidivism,” Bloom said. “It sets the tone that they are there to learn.”

It’s not so different from boot camp, said Officer Cathy Harpp, who oversees the program.

“You can’t do pushups, but you can clean the floor and the toilet bowl with a toothbrush,” Harpp said.

The hardest part was getting them to be receptive to change and adapt to the new rules, Harpp said.

“Once they knew I was not going to let up, eventually, they cave in,” she said. “Here, they’re accountable for everything.”

The idea for the program came to Bloom after she oversaw the case of an insulin dependent diabetic with a 10th-grade education.

After he was deemed unfit for boot camp because of his health condition, Bloom wanted to know what would happen to him.

Young offenders like him would have been incarcerated with the general population of inmates, where there would be no access to training and no structure.

“I’ve seen far too many youth return to the criminal justice system,” Bloom said Monday at the program’s first graduation ceremony. “All of you have met your goal. The community needs you to be the different persons that you are.”

The group of 13 will be released Dec. 28. Twenty-two new students will replace them in January.

Before the new graduates students left the room in a final marching formation, Harpp offered one lasting piece of advice: “This is where the difference begins.”

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