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Yvonne Abraham

Change now, pay later

CHELSEA — This hardly ever happens, but today, I present you with an idea both bleeding-heart liberals and die-hard conservatives can love: a government initiative (eyelids commence closing now), but one with a difference. We pay for it only if it actually works.

Really.

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This kumbaya moment is centered on Sammy Argueta, and guys like him. Not long ago, Argueta was a menace on Chelsea’s streets. As he puts it, “I destroyed the city.” He sold weed at first, then graduated to using and selling crack. On probation, he tried a GED class, but fell back into dealing, because it was easier. His arrest on federal drug charges in 2006 was inevitable.

Even if they ply their trade in neighborhoods most of us rarely see, guys like Argueta cost us a fortune — an average of $47,500 for every year they’re incarcerated, and untold thousands more in law enforcement costs, social services, and the rest. Every year, about 4,000 men between 17 and 24 age out of the Department of Youth Services or come off probation. Of these, a whopping 65 percent will be incarcerated within five years, each for an average of 2.4 years. It’s a monumental waste of lives, and money.

In an ideal world, we’d get to guys like this before they ruin families and rack up astounding bills; the watchword would be prevention. Governor Deval Patrick seems to get that. But stinting budgets mean there’s not much he can do about it.

So, lacking money, his administration has proposed something visionary. It’s called Social Innovation Financing, a wonky name for a very cool concept. Here’s how it goes: The state contracts with a local organization, in this case Roca Inc., the 25-year-old Chelsea-based outfit known for turning around the most dedicated dealers and gang members. Roca commits to working with 911 young men at risk of reoffending. The state pays nothing upfront. Instead, the $27 million to fund the six-year undertaking comes from philanthropists and commercial investors such as banks.

Roca is headed by a data-obsessed force of nature named Molly Baldwin. Her relentless approach to high-risk men and women — staying in their faces until they agree to let Roca train them to hold jobs — actually works. Roca estimates it has reduced the rate at which its clients reoffend by 68 percent. If — and only if — it can get close to that result with the guys the state sends over, Beacon Hill will reimburse the $27 million. Those tax dollars will pay back investors, some with interest.

According to the projections, keeping this many guys out of prison will save so much money that, even after the state pays out the $27 million, it will still be ahead millions. And we’ll have a whole lot more law-abiding, tax-paying citizens.

That’s a sweet deal. Modeled on a British initiative, it’s one other cities and states are looking at, too. But none of them is attempting anything as ambitious as Massachusetts.

It bums me out that government so often has to rely on others to get the right things done. But if it works, this pay-for-success approach could transform the public sector. The administration is launching a similar effort to get permanent shelter for chronically homeless people.

Sammy Argueta came around in the end. Three years in prison made him wish he’d paid more attention to Roca workers when he was 17. “I’d rather be a regular citizen paying taxes than be in jail,” he says. “I came straight to Roca when I got out.”

They put him right to work, first as a maintenance worker inside the Chelsea headquarters, later in supported jobs outside.

Now 26, he’s out on his own, earning $16.50 an hour as a supervisor at a downtown function venue. He has an 8-month-old son and another on the way. He’s happy, and whole.

“Right now I’m just trying to help my father pay his bills and support my family,” he says.

We can have many more Arguetas. We can have them cheaply, and COD.

Who doesn’t love that?

Yvonne Abraham is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at abraham@globe.com.
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