SARASOTA, Fla. (Sept. 27, 2016) Willie Bowman wants to counsel young men about making better choices before they end up behind bars. Julian Medina helps parolees find jobs, believing “everybody deserves a second chance.” And Andrew Suputo works at a program to help first-time offenders avoid jail time.
The three are current or former students at USF Sarasota-Manatee’s criminology program, but that isn’t the only thing they have in common. They share a desire to help people with criminal histories turn their lives around.
Roughly 35 to 40 USFSM students graduate annually with criminology degrees, with many going on to work as court clerks, case managers and probation officers at court houses and agencies that support the legal system. Some become police officers or use their degrees to support ongoing law enforcement careers while others take a different career path, attend law school or enroll in a graduate program.
“Students who choose criminology as their majors tend to have a passion for helping others, making a positive contribution to society and enjoy problem solving,” said Dr. Fawn Ngo, an associate professor of criminology at USFSM. “It’s also a great fit for students interested in understanding the root causes of crime and delinquency and exploring current issues and challenges in the criminal justice system.”
Andrew Saputo, Class of 2013
Andrew Saputo’s job is all about helping others. He wanted to work as a police officer until he enrolled in USFSM’s criminology program and realized he was more interested in the legal system’s “practical, administrative side.”
His choice of a new career was confirmed after an internship at the 12th Judicial Circuit’s Drug Court in Sarasota where offenders undergo therapy and treatment programs. “I started to become more interested in what happens to offenders after the arrest and what we can do to stop them from re-offending,” said Saputo.
That experience coupled with his criminology classes opened Saputo’s eyes to career possibilities outside of policing.
Now the USFSM alumnus works at a pre-trial diversionary program for non-violent offenders. His job is to help them to stop re-offending and falling into a lifelong cycle of arrest, prosecution and jail time. For most, the program is their first – and hopefully last – stop in the legal system.
“Officially, I’m a liaison between the Drug Court program and several different support services,” he said.
In addition to meeting and interviewing his “clients,” Saputo offers feedback about which ones should be admitted and remain in the year-long program. To help them succeed, he steers them toward services from housing and medical assistance to GED classes, parenting programs, anger management counseling and workforce training.
Many require more than one service and not everyone completes the program. Some are expelled for drug relapses or an arrest – the job’s heartbreaking side, as Saputo calls it. “Women with children, that’s the toughest,” he said, adding that he strives to maintain professional objectivity.
But even he can’t help being moved every now and then – especially by a success story.
“You go into these cases with a blank slate, but you hope these folks succeed. You root for them,” he said. “Every once in a while you get a letter. One guy sends me a card every Christmas. Those are the kinds of things that make you feel good … because you know that they made it.”
About 18 months ago, Saputo started taking classes at USFSM toward a master’s degree in criminal justice administration. While his mind isn’t made up about his post-graduate plans, he likes where his career is headed.
“I have three more classes left and I’ll have my master’s degree,” he said. “From there, I might pursue a PhD. Maybe I’ll teach. We’ll see.”
Julian Medina, Class of 2014
While Saputo reaches out to first-time offenders at one end of the criminal justice system, Julian Medina, 56, works at the other end by helping parolees re-enter society.
A parole-probation specialist for the Florida Department of Corrections, Medina is responsible for helping parolees land jobs and get the resources they need, including housing, to transition to life outside the legal system.
“What I do is provide offenders coming out of the system with community resources. I help them fill out applications. I teach them how to interview,” he said. “My job is to provide them with the skills necessary to be successful in getting that initial interview so they can get a job.”
After teaching the parolees about online job boards and other resources, Medina coaches them about building their resumes, writing introductory letters and how to approach job interviews. The work isn’t easy and the parolees face numerous obstacles to becoming employed. Many lack a high school degree or other training and emerge from incarceration plagued with self-doubt about their ability to find work.
Plus employers often frustrate the process by asking on job applications whether the applicant has ever been arrested or convicted of a crime. At that point, many parolees simply walk away. Some answer the question. Medina’s advice is to skip it, but complete the rest of the application.
“I tell them to leave it blank until the interview,” he said. “At that point, you can have the opportunity to talk about it, about what you did and how you’re not that same person anymore.”
Medina’s job isn’t only about helping parolees find work. He also assists in identifying housing, medical clinics, places for counseling and other resources to help them stay clean and away from the legal system. His job takes him out of the office, too, like when he speaks to employers about giving parolees a second chance.
Usually his efforts go unheralded, but occasionally he hears from former clients who visit or drop him a note. “That satisfaction I get when they come back to me and say they got that job, that ‘thank you for giving me the resources to get that job and move forward,’ that is invaluable,” he said.
Medina said he owes much to USFSM’s criminology program. It taught him the theoretical root causes of crime, as well as how the criminal justice system works and what resources are available to offenders post-release. Like other alumni and current students, Medina says he came to the criminology program from the perspective of wanting to help.
“Everybody deserves a second chance and it’s important for everybody, for communities, to be willing to give that second chance,” he said. “To err, to make mistakes, is human.”
Medina isn’t the only criminology student to feel that way. Dr. Jessica Grosholz, an assistant professor of criminology at USFSM, says she regularly encounters students who talk about wanting to make a difference in people’s lives.
“Many students like Julian choose to major in criminology not just because they are fascinated by crime, but simply because they have a desire to help other individuals, whether that is before they ever enter the criminal justice system or, as is the case for Julian, after those individuals have exhausted the entire system,” Dr. Grosholz said.
Willie Bowman, Class of 2016
Willie Bowman, 60, is set to graduate in December. After 30 years in the Army as a law enforcement officer and later as a corrections officer in Indiana, Bowman says he’s ready for a change.
Instead of wearing a uniform and carrying a badge, he wants to work at an intervention program to help boys and young men change their lives before they end up lost in the legal system.
“What I want to do is help at-risk boys, like a counselor,” he said. “I want to help those boys who are at risk of going down the wrong path, who don’t have fathers in their lives, or don’t have positive role models to show them that life comes down to choices.”
Bowman, who also counseled young offenders at a boot camp, said he hopes to work at an agency or a program that specializes in helping at-risk children, including at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office where he currently works part time as a sheriff’s deputy.
“It’s always been in me,” the Brooklyn-born Manatee resident says. “I like the giving back, the righting a wrong. I like to be that guy who helps those who can’t help themselves.”
Having worked in law enforcement his entire life, Bowman said he’s encountered many young men from broken homes who’ve lacked strong moral guidance growing up and ended up on the streets and in jail.
Through his criminology classes and law enforcement experiences he’s learned that most who commit crimes are likely to become repeat offenders unless they decide early on to “make different choices in life, take a different path,” he said.
His goal, using law enforcement know-how and insights from his studies, is to intervene with these young men before they become too deeply involved in drugs and criminal activity. At some point, he said, unless they change direction they may end up shuffling in and out of jail for the rest of their lives.
“It all comes down to choices,” Bowman said. “They can make the right choice or the wrong choice. I want to be able to help them make the right choice.”