Ex-police officer works to keep youth out of the justice system

Out of a brick building in Fort Washington this summer, teens built radio-controlled cars. They traveled to Fort Belvoir to learn about piloting and planes. And they visited a farm in Upper Marlboro to grow vegetables and work with livestock. They even volunteered at a food pantry in Prince George’s County to assemble food baskets for families.

The experiences weren’t part of a typical summer camp but were several educational sessions offered at Jacob’s Ladder, a Maryland nonprofit created by a former Prince George’s County police officer to help mentor and keep children out of the justice system. Most of the participants of this summer’s activities have been recently released from detention centers and report to the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services for violent offenses.

“Everything we’re doing is for exposure,” Jarriel Jordan Sr., founder and executive director of Jacob’s Ladder, said. “It’s another educational career path they can choose, that’s why we expose them to these experiences.”

The organization hosts diversion sessions to intervene with youth before criminal arrests, a reentry program to rehabilitate youth being released from detention centers and a workforce academy to build career readiness, according to the Jacob’s Ladder website.

Castro Pierce, 18, said he has been with Jacob’s Ladder for about a year, after being released from the Prince George’s County Department of Corrections. Pierce said he enjoyed learning different trades through the program, like carpentry and electrical work.

“I would think being an electrician is a good one for me,” Pierce said of his career path. “I like dealing with wires and cords, and helping people get their stuff back together.”

The nonprofit’s programs extend beyond those in the justice system to include all youth, like 15-year-old King McCowin, who arrived Tuesday afternoon ready for another learning session.

McCowin said he has been participating at Jacob’s Ladder throughout the summer as a home-schooling student and entrepreneur who finds joy in sharing opportunities with the other teens.

“I think that once you figure out your passion, it’s a good feeling,” McCowin said, who owns reptiles and teaches about them at events. “And it keeps you out of trouble.”

She tried to curb crime as a cop. Now retired, she created a nonprofit to keep serving.

The county has been grappling with how to address juvenile crime and safety, even implementing a curfew last September. As of Aug. 9, there have been 569 juvenile arrests, which could include the same juvenile being arrested multiple times, according to data from the police department. That number is up from 405 arrests at the same time last year.

Jordan said he started the nonprofit geared toward youth while he was still at the police department in 2016. When he retired in 2019, it became his full-time commitment.

In the 2022 juvenile reentry program, 60 youths were served, 60 percent of those youths attended school regularly, 65 percent of those youths did not have a negative interaction with law enforcement and 80 percent participated in community outreach events, according to Jacob’s Ladder’s annual report.

“I just kept seeing young juveniles getting in trouble, it’s always the same common denominators,” Jordan said. “I wanted to bridge that gap.”

McCowin said that based on his experience talking with the teens in Jacob’s Ladder’s reentry program, some are dealing with a lack of resources that puts them in “survival mode.” For Pierce, he said the solution to helping teens is that the community needs to “stick together.”

And while accountability plays a role, Jordan said “education is critical” to rehabilitation, which is why Jacob’s Ladder features unique partners, like an aviator and an entrepreneur, to help them develop skills.

“We don’t have to be traditional,” Jordan said. “We have the talents and the resources to do what we need to do.”

Andy Burton, 20, a mambo sauce creator and entrepreneur who volunteers with Jacob’s Ladder, wants to make sure teens have the same support when faced with hardships similar to his own story after his parents’ divorce and finances became a worry, he said.

At 15, he officially launched a homemade sauce business with his brother that sold 10,000 bottles in its first year, Burton said.

“I think about all the kids who may not have the support system that I have with my mother and my brother,” Burton said. “Something that makes them feel hopeless, I want to change that. I want to work to make sure that my business is a representation.”

Matthew Manning, a U.S. Army pilot and captain, leads the flight training academy at Jacob’s Ladder. Manning said he knows all too well about being faced with troubling circumstances, having a brush with the law just before his undergraduate graduation. Then, Manning said he found his passion in the Army.

“I partnered with Jacob’s Ladder intentionally trying to show kids that regardless of what your mistakes have been up until this point, your future is still bright,” Manning said. He teaches youth aviation through fundamentals of aerodynamics, flight simulation and hands-on learning of Army aircraft, including showing the teens a UH-60 Black Hawk aircraft and a C-12.

Jordan said the organization is looking forward to its back-to-school drive and the grand opening of its technology center this Saturday. The technology center will feature a computer lab, a music studio to teach sound engineering and two flight simulators for after-school programming.

“It’s a positive step out of everything that’s going on out here right now,” Pierce said of Jacob’s Ladder, and its founder, Jordan. “We don’t really have that many role models around us that’s introducing us or showing us new things to do. … We need more people like him.”

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