CRAWLING ALONG a filthy ceiling duct inside Taylor Elementary School, 11-year-old Luis Cruz was terrified.

He could hear cops and dogs running through the halls below, looking for him and the three other boys who had broken into the place to steal computers.

Luis had never been in trouble with the law. That changed when he dropped from the ceiling and ran for the doors, where police officers stopped him cold. Given Luis' youth, his status as a first-time offender, the nonviolent nature of his crime and the involvement of his parents, a Family Court judge placed him on deferred adjudication. That means he has been given a heavily supervised probation period to turn his life around.

Read that sentence again, and sigh that an 11-year-old whose life has barely begun would already have to pull it back on track.

Then marvel that Luis, now 13, appears to be doing just that, thanks in part to an intriguing sports program being piloted by the U.S. Attorney's Office, the Philadelphia Juvenile Probation Department and a new group called the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative.

Not many people know it, but the USAO is concerned about more than prosecuting bad guys, says Executive Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Reed.

"We work with communities to reduce violence in the first place," he says. That means finding ways to keep young first-time offenders like Luis from repeatedly re-offending - a numbing cycle that destroys neighborhoods.

"By the time we see them, they're adults facing gargantuan jail time for the series of crimes it took to get there," Reed says.

Last year, Reed met with Philly Family Court Administrative Judge Kevin Dougherty about ways to divert first-time juvenile offenders from further trouble.

Both men knew that reformed juvenile offenders rarely credit the justice system alone for changing their lives. Instead, they give props to their family and community, to relationships with mentors and to friendships with good kids whose behavior rubbed off.

Their discussion occurred shortly after the Philadelphia Youth Sports Collaborative was launched by University of Pennsylvania-based educator Nancy Peter, who works with after-school and youth-development organizations, and educator Wendy Palmer, who develops inner-city youth programs.

The women knew that Philly is loaded with sports groups that do more than help city kids work up a sweat. The mission of groups like SquashSmarts, Philadelphia City Rowing, Work To Ride and others is to use sports as a vehicle to hone virtues - patience, commitment, discipline, teamwork, accountability. Most programs also offer mentoring and tutoring.

PYSC pools the groups to share resources and find new ways to reach kids, as is being done with the city school district's athletics office.

Enter Bennie Price, Family Court's deputy director of juvenile probation. At Dougherty's behest, he is now working with PYSC to place first-time nonviolent offenders into programs with guidance from adults and interactions with peers who are up to something positive and fun. About 20 kids are taking part in this pilot program, with heavy supervision from their probation officers.

Including Luis Cruz.

I met Luiz and his parents, Virgenmina Criton and Luis Sr., in Dougherty's chambers to talk about the boy's experience at SquashSmarts. It's located at the Lenfest Center in North Philly, where he is learning to play a game he'd never heard of.

Luis was quiet as the adults discussed his arrest. When asked about squash, though, he became animated as he detailed the game's rules and strategy. He talked about how excited he is to travel to Boston for a competition, how he's using homework sessions to lift his grades and how he feels liked and accepted at SquashSmarts, an ethnic melting pot.

"I was hanging out with the wrong kids before," who "peer-pressured" him into the school break-in, he says. "I didn't want them to think I was afraid."

SquashSmarts is just one component of what Luis is receiving through delayed adjudication. His probation officer has become part of the family, and Luis' parents praise her for helping their son.

"He comes home on time now," says his mother, as she dabs at tears of greatfulness. "He treats us with respect. The way he was behaving before is not how we raised him. We were so worried."

Luis' job, says Dougherty, is to show the court whether he's a good kid who got into a bad situation or a bad kid who deserves the full wrath of the court.

"There comes a point in a child's life when a door opens, and the future comes in," he says. "And he has to choose."

He turns to Luis. "So, what kind of kid are you?" he asks. "The good kind or the bad kind?"

"The good kind," Luis says.

Phone: 215-854-2217

Twitter: @RonniePhilly

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