Megan Leschak laughs when she refers to her younger self as “a horrible teenager.” Growing up in South Florida, Leschak skipped school, got into trouble with the law and ended up with a juvenile arrest record.
But when she thinks about her life now, she knows her youthful transgressions are no laughing matter.
“In my early 20s, I realized that I was so lucky that I was not currently incarcerated, I had no criminal record, I was in college, and I had my whole adult life ahead of me,” Leschak said. “I was very lucky that I had people in my life who refused to allow me to fail, despite my best efforts. But if my skin had been a different color, if I didn’t have parents who were advocates for me and teachers who cared, my life could have turned out really differently.”
This sobering realization sparked a passion in Leschak to work first with youth in the juvenile system and then with adults in the adult system. Leschak noticed that many of the people with whom she worked shared a common characteristic: all had experienced severe psychological trauma, most often during childhood.
Leschak, who recently finished a master’s program at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, points to research showing that post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is not uniquely the calling card of soldiers returning from combat. One study found PTSD rates of more than 70 percent among young men who had survived being shot or stabbed, for example. Such violence can cause significant damage to the brain, Leschak says, impairing the ability to regulate emotions and to experience empathy.
In a city such as Baltimore, lingering effects of violence are a significant problem. “You’ve probably heard someone say, ‘Hurt people hurt people,’” Leschak says. “Now there’s neurological research to back that up.”
Partnering with the Maryland Office of the Public Defender, Leschak will use her OSI-Baltimore Community Fellowship to start a pre-trial court diversion program called Bmore Free. The program will identify low-income defendants suffering from PTSD, in order to move them from judicial proceedings into treatment specifically designed to cope with trauma.
The program’s goals are to relieve some of the burden on the city’s courts, decrease recidivism and improve the emotional health of individuals in the criminal justice system.
“Some of the research estimates that 40 percent of the urban poor suffer from PTSD because of the environment they live in,” Leschak says. “Most of them don’t even realize it.”
With help from the public defender’s office and School of Social Work interns, Leschak will evaluate certain defendants charged with low-level felonies and misdemeanors to see if they have lingering effects from earlier trauma.
Bmore Free then will work with judges to try to negotiate therapeutic treatment instead of jail time, with the understanding that if the defendant has not gotten into more trouble within in a certain time period, the judge might consider dropping the charges. “Sometimes the judges are just looking for a program to send them to,” Leschak says. “The jails are full. They’re thinking, ‘I don’t want to incarcerate you for this petty theft.’”
Leschak believes that with intense treatment led by trained clinicians, and dedicated case management services, many low-level offenders can get the help they need to become healthier emotionally—and make better choices in the future.