Monalisa Weber is a former probation officer for the Florida Department of Corrections. She worked with hundreds of offenders, helping them fill out paperwork and meet court dates. After six years, she grew frustrated and resigned—noticing that most offenders didn’t know their rights and that the tiniest infraction while on probation could land them in prison.
But Weber wanted to help. In 2014, she started a radio show that educated listeners on the criminal justice system called Probation Station. It attracted a loyal following. Last June, she was asked to teach a monthly class on the probation system at the Dania Beach Library. But after hearing horror stories about young offenders winding up in prison for decades because of small probation violations, she knew she had to do more.
This summer she proposed teaching a class on the criminal justice system to incarcerated youth. The Broward School Board accepted the idea as a pilot program at two juvenile detention facilities: Broward Youth Treatment and Broward Girls Academy. Since November, Weber has been visiting approximately 60 students every Friday, teaching them about the intricacies of plea deals, restitution, and other guidelines.
"The idea is that since they're already in juvenile facilities, we need to teach them that they don't want to go to adult felony facilities," Weber says. "Hopefully they're deterred from committing a crime after understanding the consequences and, if not, at least when they're caught they will understand the terminology and what's going on."
After quitting her job as a probation officer, Weber took up work as a paralegal at the law office of J.C. Dugue in Hialeah, focusing primarily on getting offenders off probation early. In the evenings, Weber, a South Broward resident, would return to the primarily black Sistrunk area of Fort Lauderdale, where she knew residents from her stint as a probation officer. People flocked to her for advice. That's how she got the idea for a radio show.
Weber's curriculum coupled with her blunt, tell-it-like-it-is approach has been a hit with her students. For now, Weber offers her services for free. Since it's a pilot program, the School Board won't be able to secure funding until the next school year.
"It's insane. The kids love it," she says of the program so far. "These kids are so troubled and it can feel like no one cares about them."
In addition to her class on the criminal justice system, Weber also teaches about the history of the criminal justice system. And she brings in speakers who were formerly incarcerated and are now contributing to society. She tries to find men and women that her students can relate to.
"I try to provide them resources and connections for when they get out," she says. "For example, one of the young men [in the class] is an artist. So I brought in an artist who was also locked up but now owns a tattoo shop in Palm Beach."
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Most people who leave prison are on probation. Since they're no longer behind bars, it's easy for them to forget their terms and that the tiniest mistake could bring them back, Weber says.
In December, 23-year-old Herbert Smith was sentenced to 60 years in prison after police stopped him for driving a car with tinted windows. They found that he had a suspended license and ammo in the car. That's usually not a big deal, but four years ago, Smith had been found guilty on multiple theft and burglary charges, served two years in prison as a youthful offender, and was out on probation. Since the criminal justice system operates on a scoresheet, the judge added up the previous charges which totaled more than 60 years in prison. (After the sentence, though, the judge had a change of heart and sentenced him to probation.)
Weber hopes to prevent anything like that from happening to her students.
"By the end of the class, I hope my students will gain an understanding of the criminal justice system that'll help them stay out of prison."