Opportunity Now brings change through 2nd chances: First-time, nonviolent offenders commit to new beginnings

Published 12:05 am Saturday, September 14, 2019

RESERVE — Since 2015, 99 low-risk, nonviolent first-time offenders have been offered a chance to get back on the right path through the Opportunity Now Program, according to St. John the Baptist Parish District Attorney Bridget A. Dinvaut.

Of the 99, 53 accepted the challenge to better themselves and completed the yearlong program, which includes 10 weeks of classroom time and nine months of employment and well-being check-ins. There is a 97 percent employment rate among graduates of the program, and only 3 of the 53 individuals have reoffended since 2015.

Many others have found fulfilling work with local industry and retail partners. Courtney Moore, a recent graduate of the seventh Opportunity Now Class, was pleased to announce the program has given him employment and new hope for the future. He encouraged all of his classmates and future students to keep the Opportunity Now textbook and use it as a resource.

“I still have it. I still refer to it,” Moore said. “I’m glad for the book and I’m glad for the skills because, two weeks ago, I landed a job with the federal government.”

Mock interviews were another vital part of the class, according to Moore.

“I can’t stress enough how my classmates and I were so, so proud to stay gainfully employed and drug-free,” Moore said at graduation. “Thank you to my friends and family and everyone who supported us through this journey. I appreciate y’all for not giving up on us. I appreciate the DA for giving people a second chance, and I hope and I pray that you keep this program open to help others, just like you helped us.”

Opportunity Now welcomed its first class six months after Dinvaut was elected district attorney in 2015. The program is a partnership between the District Attorney’s Office, Louisiana Rehabilitative Services, Louisiana Workforce Commission and XP Synergy.

“If I can help one person be successful and direct their path away from the criminal justice system, then I’m happy,” Dinvaut said. “That’s a success story for me.”

Dinvaut said part of being successful is to have a support system outside of the classroom setting, whether it comes from a loving family or services offered through program partners. The Opportunity Now program is individually tailored to students’ needs and can assist in access to healthcare resources.

Individuals also share their career goals, as certified teachers strive to connect them to employment that connects to their hobbies or interests. For instance, a class member who wants to pursue culinary arts may find employment in a restaurant.

Career exploration and occupational training comes at the end of the 10-week class, which also emphasizes social skills, personal hygiene and how to recognize and address addictive behaviors. Classroom participants also learn anger management skills, goal setting and the importance of victim restitution.

Lessons on job applications and mock interviews prepare Opportunity Now participants to secure employment, since Dinvaut said independence is vital to a successful life. Modules on banking and money management further prepare Opportunity Now students for the future.

In order to participate in Opportunity Now, a nonviolent first-time offender must take responsibility for his or her charges. The program is completely voluntary, and those who do not complete the requirements of the class are returned to the docket for prosecution, according to Dinvaut.

All participants undergo drug testing at the beginning and end of the program. Substance abuse treatment and counseling is provided when needed. If an individual rejects treatment, he or she will not be eligible to complete the program.

Dinvaut said Opportunity Now aids in restorative justice by restoring a person to a life process outside of the criminal justice system.

“As a partner in the criminal justice system, you have to reinvest in your community,” Dinvaut said. “You have to reinvest in people so they don’t reoffend. We have to give them the skills they need to be successful law abiding citizens here in St. John the Baptist Parish. Without that, you run the risk of the person reoffending and committing crimes. Those crimes could escalate into violent crimes.”

Dinvaut said she is proud of every Opportunity Now participant who has taken the first big step toward making a change. Class No. 8 is currently underway, and a total of eight individuals are advancing toward graduation. All eight have found employment, according to the District Attorney’s Office.