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Push for youth offender program in Suffolk

Suffolk's new deputy police chief told county legislators Thursday she hopes to replicate the success of a pilot program she launched four years ago in Nassau County that has kept dozens of youth offenders from returning to crime.

The Hempstead-based program, called the Council of Thought and Action (COTA), was started in 2008 on a small budget and has served more than 900 youth offenders, Deputy Chief Risco Mention-Lewis told the legislature's Public Safety committee.

Mention-Lewis, appointed to her post in July by Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, established the program in her previous capacity as an assistant Nassau County District Attorney.

The program provides convicted criminal offenders, ages 16 to 23, with mentors who help them develop a 45-day action plan to stay out of trouble. Participants also are recruited for volunteer and job training opportunities to help them find work, often a challenge for those with a criminal record.

"You identify the misguided and you work with them," Mention-Lewis said, noting she has received letters from the U.S. Attorney's Office expressing interest in the program.

"Are you going to have some people who are going to fall back? Yes. But, you can't afford not to try," she said.

Mention-Lewis said she hopes to launch the first such council in Wyandanch, and has begun meeting with local community leaders, residents and youth.

"It's not going to be perfect, and it's going to take time," Mention-Lewis told legislators.

In 2009, the Nassau program had a 10 percent recidivism rate compared to the state average of 40 percent, she said.

Legis. Kara Hahn (D-Setauket), a social worker, said she admired Mention-Lewis' "holistic approach" toward curbing crime.

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