Young New Yorkers Gives Teens Chance To Choose Art Over Jail

When Daniel Aguilar was just 16 years old, he was already faced with a misdemeanor and the looming fear of jail time. Then he was presented with a choice.

Aguilar could either carry out his sentence and do community service, or join an arts program. He took the better option.

"At first I was scared, just like all of us, we were just troubled teenagers at the time," Aguilar told HuffPost Live. "I’m not really an artistic person, but through it I started drawing, and that really helped me open up my mind at the time."

Young New Yorkers helps 16 and 17-year-olds -- who can be prosecuted as adults in the state of New York -- expunge their criminal records and avoid jail time by instead putting youthful offenders into an arts program.

"The curriculum is uniquely tailored to develop the emotional and behavioral skills of the young participants while facilitating responsible and creative self-expression," their website says.

Last Wednesday, a silent auction was held to continue funding the program. A total of 123 well-known artists donated pieces to the cause, while others had to be turned away due to the sheer number of artists looking to help.

Rachel Barnard, executive director of Young New Yorkers, said silent auctions and donations on their website help keep the program going.

“I think what we often forget is that people in the system are human beings," Barnard said. "I’ve had a judge that referred to it as a ‘grind’ and that’s really exhausting, and when [the teens] come and visit our program, it gives them some space to re-think what’s possible."

Three years later, Aguilar said the program has helped him stay off a path of crime.

"Through the program, I learned I had a voice," he said. "As the Spanish young man that I am, I never really felt I had a voice. But now through Rachel and the program, I can go out into society and say ‘look where I’ve been, and where I’m coming right now, and how far I’ve gotten,' and maybe I can stand up for young people like me."