U.S. Attorney’s office fighting crime, forging partners in inner-city Miami

South Florida’s most powerful federal prosecutor is out of his element.

Sitting in a small chair, Wifredo Ferrer is trying to warm up a group of bright-eyed 4- and 5-year-old school kids on a recent morning in Overtown. The U.S. attorney tells them that he works for President Barack Obama and asks them what they want to be when they grow up.

One by one, each blurts out: doctor, nurse, police officer, pirate, model, Supergirl. Giggles fill the library at Dunbar Elementary School.

Dressed in a dark business suit, Ferrer asks the 33 pre-K and kindergarten students what is the most important thing they need to do to make their dreams come true.

“Reading,” they say in unison. “If you master reading,” he nods, “you can do anything.”

Ferrer proceeded to read Five Little Monkeys Jumping on the Bed in English and Little Red Riding Hood in Spanish. Then, with fellow prosecutors, he passed out new books to the children. But his lesson plan was part of a much bigger agenda: Forging educational partnerships with Overtown and other hard-hit minority communities with the aim of rooting out crime, taming violence, mentoring children, creating jobs and rehabilitating offenders.

He may be tilting at windmills. But Ferrer sees himself and some 240 lawyers in his Southern District office as prosecutors who should do more than just put the bad guys away. He believes his prosecutors should be crusaders who help keep the region’s inner cities safer. And to that end, he has assigned 10 of them to work with community schools, leaders and nonprofits.

“President Obama is the one who asked me to do this job,” Ferrer, a father of two teenage boys, told the Dunbar students last week. “Our job is to protect you.”

Launched in October 2011, Ferrer’s Violence Reduction Partnership focuses on South Florida’s crime-ridden “hot spots.” The program started in Miami’s historic black neighborhood, Overtown, and expanded to Liberty City and Miami Gardens. It now operates in parts of Broward, Palm Beach and St. Lucie counties.

For years, drug traffickers have terrorized these communities with deadly gun violence, taking the lives of innocent children who have been victims of drive-by shootings, among other tragedies. Ferrer’s office, working with federal agents and local police, has prosecuted about 90 violent offenders on drug and gun charges, mostly career criminals, over the past two years.

“These kids see a lot of the violence and crime and all the negative things,” Ferrer said after his presentation to the students. “We’re here to show them the positive things.”

Dunbar Elementary School Principal Ann Lewis said the partnership is anything but a dog-and-pony show.

“When one of the prosecutors first came over here, one kid said, ‘You’re the ones who send people to jail,’ ” Lewis recalled. “But this gives them the opposite side of what they’re used to, because some of these kids have parents who are incarcerated.”

“They’re very involved with us all the time,” she said. “We can ask them for anything. This is not a fluff thing. The kids love it.”

She rattled off the benefits. Prosecutors have acted as mentors and teachers, supplying new books, school supplies and knapsacks. They’ve held workshops on ways to stop bullying and being aware of Internet predators. Working with area businesses and other groups, they’ve helped run job fairs that have provided training and employment for residents and former convicted felons.

Big Brothers, Big Sisters and the United Way are among the nonprofits that have joined forces with the U.S. attorney’s office to carry out its mission, including offering “reading pal” programs at Dunbar and other schools.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Roy Altman, who grew up in Miami-Dade County, said he knows his first priority is to fight crime, but he also recognizes that doing that is only one piece of a larger puzzle.

“I have a vested interest in this community,” said Altman, the designee to the Overtown area, who was questioned by a Dunbar student about sending criminals to jail.

“My job, in a narrow sense, is to prosecute cases,” he said. “But I also see my job as a way to make this community safer. Doing this community outreach is an important part of that.”

Altman said he has participated in career days in Overtown, where he has conducted “little trials” to teach Dunbar students about how the criminal justice system works, including the importance of evidence, testimony and juries.

Altman and fellow prosecutors Seth Schlessinger, Olivia Choe and Norman Henning also have participated in other local activities, including job fairs organized by the U.S. attorney’s law enforcement community coordinator, J.D. Smith.

Local employers, including restaurants, auto-parts shops and truck-driving businesses, showed up to interview hundreds of residents and dozens of ex-offenders looking for jobs and training at Overtown fairs over the past two years. More than 30 were hired or offered positions, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

“People are building their confidence and building relationships with employers they’d never meet,” Altman said.

This week, similar job fairs are planned in Liberty City and Opa-locka.

The U.S. attorney’s office has also collaborated with the nonprofit Tools for Change to build a lab with six computers at the Victory Homes public housing complex in Liberty City. It opened in November. A 16-computer lab, also subsidized by the U.S. attorney’s office, operates in the Liberty Square area.

Both have attracted hundreds of children and adults every month who otherwise would not have access to technology to do homework, seek jobs and apply for government benefits.

“It’s like a resource center where anyone in the community can get help from us and get access to the Internet,” said Eric Thompson, the community coordinator at Tools for Change. “It makes a real difference in people’s lives.”

At Booker T. Washington High School, teams of federal prosecutors have volunteered as mentors by checking up on students’ quarterly report cards. The idea is to help them focus on their strengths and weaknesses and look for ways to improve their grades.

Altman, who visited the high school on Friday to check up on the latest report cards, said sometimes problems surface during evaluations that go beyond the classroom. He once learned about an immigrant student who was doing poorly in school because he did not speak English, was in the country illegally and had lost his housing.

He said he brought the problem to the attention of a school counselor so the student could find shelter.

In November, about 90 students from Carol City Middle School took a field trip to the U.S. attorney’s office in downtown Miami to hear a group of prosecutors talk about “making smarter choices” in their lives. The students also heard from three inmates imprisoned at the nearby Federal Detention Center.

They warned the youths about the terrible consequences of breaking the law instead of getting a good education, said George Karavetsos, executive assistant U.S. attorney. “They spoke to the students about how making poor decisions in their lives resulted in each of them receiving lengthy federal prison sentences.”

Anyone interested in participating in the U.S. attorney’s Violence Reduction Partnership can call 305-961-9134.