Local leaders say a new initiative called U-CAN has the potential to change the lives of young offenders. "United Against Crime - Community Action Network" is the brainchild of Cohoes City Court Judge Andra Ackerman.
The idea of U-CAN is to steer young offenders between the ages 16 and 21 away from a downward spiral that could lead to a life of crime. Judge Ackerman says U-CAN addresses a need in her court — one she came face-to-face with early on. "My first day in the Cohoes city court, there was a young man that stood before me. He had three files that I had read previous before court. Three crimes that were within the same year and increased over time. I was able to review some information in the file that told me a lot of things. He did not have a father figure ever in his life. He was non-existent. His mom is addicted to drugs and alcohol, and she met someone that she up and left him, left him here alone at just shy of 17 years old. She went off with a man in Florida. He was homeless, sleeping with different friends, his grades were plummeting and he dropped out and started drinking himself. That struck a chord in my heart when he stood before me because I could see the pain, I could see the hopelessness, the lack of understanding, and the anger growing in him."
Ackerman soon realized the revolving-door of teenage and young adult defendants who often lack a positive role model and whose misconduct is getting worse had to be closed. Her inspiration to make change came from within. "I never met my biological father. And my mother was, and still likely is, an alcoholic. At 10 years old, she decided she didn't want to even try to be a parent to me anymore and I ended up in the foster care system. So I know those feelings. So really pulled a chord to me and I said 'how can we help him?' And what happened in my life? Why did I make it here and he's heading down this road, and I realized I had stepping stones in my life. I had people that stepped up to the plate that wanted to help me through tough times. I was 14 years old when the first person in my entire life ever asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up."
Support she received from mentors steered Ackerman onto a better path, something she'll never forget. With help from court officials, Mayor Shawn Morse and Albany County Executive Dan McCoy, she developed U-CAN, which has the support of District Attorney David Soares. "If you're that individual who's sitting down, and you're wondering what contribution can you possibly make to improve your community, well, reaching out to the mayor's office and becoming a mentor for U-CAN is the number one way in which you can help improve the community."
Mayor Morse, who admitted to having had a few scrapes with the law as a young man, was one of the first to volunteer to serve as a mentor to young defendants, and had a message for would-be mentors: "You can change lives. Each and every one of you in this room who's thinking about being a mentor, can mentor the next mayor of the city, the next county executive, the next judge, the next D.A., the next school-superintendent, conflict defender, fire chief, police chief, firefighter - you name it. Because of the love and commitment to just helping change a life, you can change their lives for the better. I am living proof, that you can become mayor of the city of Cohoes, even though you had a few fights behind Mulley's Tavern. Because there was somebody who said to me 'you know what, Shawn? You got a lot more in you than that.' I will tell you what the judge said to me: 'You're not Michael the Archangel, defender of battle, get down there and find a mentor.'"
Morse found several. "And I can only hope that I can pay it back 10 times forward, so as one of the mentors, I look forward to the day that I can help shape the next young life."
The U-CAN program is a first of its kind in New York.