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In Florida, teens caught with guns get a second chance to turn their lives around

Damari was worried about his future after he was arrested for carrying a gun. The Youth Gun Offender Program gave him a second chance.
Octavio Jones
Damari was worried about his future after he was arrested for carrying a gun. The Youth Gun Offender Program gave him a second chance.

Damari was scared.

There’s a lot of crime in his Tampa neighborhood, and men hanging around the bus stop would sometimes harass him on the way to school, he says. That’s why he started carrying a loaded handgun. He was 16, and a sophomore in high school.

“If nobody else could protect me, then I could protect myself,” he said.

Then Damari got caught with the gun at school. According to the 2023 police report, Damari hadn’t used the gun or threatened anyone with it. But gun possession by a minor is illegal in Florida, except in narrow circumstances. Tampa police arrested Damari and charged him with felony possession of a firearm on school property.

Damari spent 21 days locked up in a juvenile detention center and was kicked out of school.

“It was scary, I didn’t know what was going to happen in my life, because I was in like advanced classes and everything,” said Damari. NPR is identifying him by his first name only to protect future job opportunities.

Had Damari shot someone, the state attorney might have transferred him to adult court, where punishment is much worse. But instead, the judge offered him a second chance and ordered him to complete the Youth Gun Offender program.

The new program, like similar initiatives in some other U.S. cities, provides young people with mentorship, education and economic opportunity in hopes of discouraging them from using or even carrying guns. It’s part of a broader public health approachto preventing shootings by identifying risk factors for violence and intervening early with community-based resources.

Mentors play a critical role in Tampa's Youth Gun Offender program. Manager Thaddeus Wright doesn't just have tough conversations with the boys. He'll often shoot hoops with them at the community center that hosts the program or take them out bowling or to the movies.
Octavio Jones /
Mentors play a critical role in Tampa's Youth Gun Offender program. Manager Thaddeus Wright doesn't just have tough conversations with the boys. He'll often shoot hoops with them at the community center that hosts the program or take them out bowling or to the movies.

These initiatives are sometimes called “diversion” programs because the idea is to divert people away from the prison system, and reduce the time they spend in the judicial system.

Some diversion programs focus on drug offenses or mental illness. Research suggests jailing people does little to prevent future violence and can have devastating effects on individuals and their communities.

Gun arrests are rising

The nonprofit Safe and Sound Hillsborough runs diversion programs in the county and launched this one in early 2023 to curb gun violence through prevention and rehabilitation.

“Unfortunately we saw a sharp increase in the number of kids being arrested on gun-related crimes,” said executive director Freddy Barton.

Gun sales in the U.S. spiked during the pandemic and remain elevated. With more guns around, it’s more likely some fall into the wrong hands – including young hands.

Nearly 1,800 kids were arrested in Florida for possessing a firearm or other weapon between July 2022 and July 2023, according to the state Department of Juvenile Justice. That’s a 50 percent increase from two years prior. Black males were disproportionately affected.

Some kids, like Damari, take guns from home. Others steal them from unlocked cars and sell them.

Recent tragedies amplify calls for change

Barton's program largely focuses on kids who carry guns but haven't hurt anybody with them yet.

“We hear the people who say, ‘Oh, these are just bad kids.’ No, these kids are making bad decisions,” he said. “And everyone can have an opportunity to change their lives.”

Freddy Barton (rear) and another adult mentor (left) counsel teen boys who've been arrested on gun crimes as part of the Tampa-based Youth Gun Offender program. During an evening session on Feb. 22, 2024, the group discussed a proposed state law to toughen penalties for kids who carry guns. The boy raising his hand argued spending time in juvenile jail can make kids more violent.
Stephanie Colombini / WUSF
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WUSF
Freddy Barton (rear) and another adult mentor (left) counsel teen boys who've been arrested on gun crimes as part of the Tampa-based Youth Gun Offender program. During an evening session on Feb. 22, 2024, the group discussed a proposed state law to toughen penalties for kids who carry guns. The boy raising his hand argued spending time in juvenile jail can make kids more violent.

An October shooting in Tampa that killed two young people and injured 16 underscores the urgent need for violence prevention efforts like this one, Barton said.

The mass shooting, which drew national attention, occurred on Oct. 29 in Ybor City, a popular nightlife area in Tampa. A 14 year-old boy faces murder charges, and another 14 year-old boy died. He was carrying a gun too.

Several more shootings involving teens have alarmed Floridians, including one in St. Petersburg on April 24. A 17 year-old boy shot and killed a 14 year-old girl and then himself after arguing while intoxicated.

“We need to get to our kids, we need to get to our parents, we need to bring law enforcement and all our community agencies together,” Barton said. “If we don't keep doing that, and let up off the gas, we're going to see more and more of these events happen.”

Growing national interest in diversion programs

Florida lawmakers have taken a tougher approach — recently increasing penalties for teens possessing guns.

Barton wishes lawmakers would address other factors — like adults leaving guns in cars or failing to store them safely.

“We do understand that you’ve got to hold people accountable, but it’s not just the kids you’ve got to hold accountable, so I want the total picture to be assessed,” said Barton.

Thaddeus Wright attends a juvenile detention docket via Zoom on Aug. 14, 2023 while working out of the Tampa community center that hosts the Youth Gun Offender program. Managers attend court every morning to identify teens who may qualify to participate.
Stephanie Colombini / WUSF
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WUSF
Thaddeus Wright attends a juvenile detention docket via Zoom on Aug. 14, 2023 while working out of the Tampa community center that hosts the Youth Gun Offender program. Managers attend court every morning to identify teens who may qualify to participate.

Other cities grappling with an influx of firearms have also set up diversion models as a way of preventing violence.

In Philadelphia, District Attorney Larry Krasner built the Alternative Felony Disposition program in 2021, for adults arrested for unlicensed gun possession. To be eligible, they must have no other convictions, have never brandished the weapon and have no “group affiliations” for criminal purposes.

Participants meet in groups once a week, and each is paired with a social worker who offers counseling, employment assistance, educational opportunities and basic services such as getting an I.D.

“What we need to do is actually follow the law, follow the constitution, and separate out the large number of people who will go down a positive path if they have an opportunity, from the ones who need to be locked up,” he said.

Of the 186 people the program has served since September 2021, 67% reported full-time employment at the time of graduation, and only 5% of participants had been rearrested in the first year after graduating, according to data compiled by the District Attorney’s Office last fall.

That’s compared to a 21% re-arrest rate over that period for other defendants convicted of gun possession – a 76% decrease.

Narisse, 24, recently graduated from the Philadelphia program. He asked to be identified only by his first name so that future employers wouldn’t see his criminal justice involvement.

The diversion program helped him find a job and grow his side business as a photo booth vendor, Narisse said.

“It kept me on top of my responsibility and made me be better at time management,” he said. “It kept me on my toes.”

There are similar programs in Hennepin County, MN and Savannah, GA, both launched with the help of the Vera Institute of Justice.

“Incarceration is so destabilizing for that person, for families, for communities,” said Mona Sahaf, director of the institute’s Reshaping Prosecution Initiative. “It’s interrupting all the things people need to do well. The evidence tells us, research tells us, that incarceration isn’t associated with lowering crime rates.”

Six months of classes, community service, and mentoring

Teens in the Youth Gun Offender program in Tampa are court-ordered to attend evening activities for six months and are monitored for another six months. For now, only boys can participate.

They meet with families of kids who’ve died in shootings, and visit funeral homes and hospital trauma centers to get a glimpse of the horrors gun violence can cause.

Occasionally, men who’ve killed people with guns talk to the boys, urging them not to make the same mistakes.

“If you continue on the road that you’re on, you are not going to like the destination,” parolee James Coban told the group one night. He spent nearly 40 years in prison for murder.

Parollee James Coban visited the community center that hosts Tampa's Youth Gun Offender program on the evening of Aug. 10, 2023. He served 39 years and two days in prison for murder and talked to the teens about his regret and shame.
Octavio Jones /
Parollee James Coban visited the community center that hosts Tampa's Youth Gun Offender program on the evening of Aug. 10, 2023. He served 39 years and two days in prison for murder and talked to the teens about his regret and shame.

“When I killed a person I didn’t kill just that person, I killed that person’s potential. I killed everything that he could have done in life,” he said.

Gun violence often stems from underlying issues like family trauma or money problems, said program director Freddy Barton.

Participants in his program get anger management counseling. Mentors help them continue their education and connect them with job opportunities. They also give kids rides to the program and free meals.

“So we look at all the things that could possibly cause someone to fall down and we address those things. That's the public health approach of working with these kids,” said Barton.

Mentors offer support and life skills

Another manager, Thaddeus Wright, is a former marine who came out of retirement to work in the program. The boys call him "Mr. Thaddeus."

"They're looking for someone to relate to them, because a lot of them feel that no one cares about what they think or what they want," said Wright.

It’s a demanding job.

A community center in Tampa serves as home base for the Youth Gun Offender Program. Teens often start evening sessions by writing positive words, like "motivated" and "intelligent," on large pieces of paper. These signs are meant to remind the boys what kind of men they can grow up to be if they work hard and steer clear of crime.
Stephanie Colombini / WUSF
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WUSF
A community center in Tampa serves as home base for the Youth Gun Offender Program. Teens often start evening sessions by writing positive words, like "motivated" and "intelligent," on large pieces of paper. These signs are meant to remind the boys what kind of men they can grow up to be if they work hard and steer clear of crime.

When they’re not running the evening sessions, Wright and Barton are usually busy all day, making phone calls with parents and juvenile justice workers in Hillsborough County, where Tampa is located.

If a teen has an urgent problem or needs a ride to a court hearing, or wants advice, they’ll often drop what they’re doing to help. On weekends, they might take the boys bowling or to the movies.

“A lot of these kids don't have positive male role models in their lives, so we try to fill that void as best we can,” said Wright.

Helping parents find new options for their teens

The extra support can be a huge help for parents like Damari's mom Dee, who also asked to be identified by her first name to protect his identity.

Dealing with Damari’s arrest and then his path through the court system was really stressful, said Dee.

“Because I'm working a full-time job, I have another child, I was going to school at that time, so it was just like, how in the world am I going to be getting this kid to and from this program?” she said.

The Youth Gun Offender program took that burden off her hands, by providing transportation to and from the program for any teen who needs it.

Damari transformed during his six months in the program, Dee says. He’d come home talking about how much he enjoyed some community service they performed, like working in a food pantry. Or he’d share a piece of career advice he received from the mentors.

In September, a judge dropped all charges in Damari’s case.

“This is a second chance for him to have a clean slate to live a full-fledged life,” she said.

Damari's next steps

In its first year the Youth Gun Offender program served 54 kids in Hillsborough County. Damari is one of 45 who successfully completed it, while nine were discharged for getting in trouble again.

Studies show diversion programs like this are usually more effective than traditional punishment at keeping kids from re-offending. They’re also cheaper to run.

The initial success is spurring more investment in the program. Safe and Sound has received grants totaling more than $1 million to expand the program over the next few years. The program hired more mentors, and will spend some of the money to support families and also study program outcomes.

Damari is 17 now. After attending an alternative high school, he passed the GED in December, earning his high school diploma.

He’s also been helping his mom at her job managing community gardens in Tampa. While clearing vines from the garden fence one afternoon, Damari reflected on what's changed since his arrest.

He now understands how reckless it was to walk around with a loaded gun, he says When he has a problem, he feels more comfortable turning to adults like his mom or Mr. Thaddeus for help.

For his next step, Damari wants to attend trade school to become an electrician or HVAC technician. He hopes to stay connected with the program and maybe even mentor other kids one day.

I just wish people would stay out of trouble,” he said. “Try to make your community the best community.”

At one point, Damari felt like the arrest was something he’d never recover from. But the program gave him a second chance, and he plans to make the most of it.

This story comes from NPR's health reporting partnership with WUSF and KFF Health News.

Copyright 2024 WUSF Public Media - WUSF 89.7

Stephanie Colombini
[Copyright 2024 WGCU]
Sammy Caiola
[Copyright 2024 NPR]