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Queens Program Gives Second Chance to Teens in Trouble With the Law

 The program which gives teens with criminal record second chance marks its 15th anniversary at the Queens Library this week.
Queens Program Gives Second Chance to Teens Who Broke Law
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QUEENS — In 2000, Nicholai Khan was arrested for painting graffiti on the wall of a Long Island Rail Road station in Bayside.

At the time, he was 20 and a member of a street gang, he said.

During his arraignment for the graffiti charge, Khan was doodling on a piece of of paper.

A court officer noticed his talent and a judge later agreed to send Khan to the Second Chance program — a partnership between the Queens Library and the Queens District Attorney's office that gives young people ages 16 to 21 an opportunity to avoid criminal record.

Today, Khan, 34, is a professional visual artist who has worked with a number of stars including LL Cool J, and wrote "Nicho the Tiger," a book for children.

He said the program turned his life around.

“They gave me that little bit of hope,” said Khan, who for 12 years has volunteered as an art teacher at the program. “I saw that there is a way out and all I have to do is to follow my art, follow my passion and my dream.”

On Thursday, July 31, Khan will join 24 new graduates at an event at the Queens Library, where the program is held, to mark its 15th anniversary.

Second Chance was started by the Queens District Attorney, but since the library joined the partnership the program has worked with roughly 700 young people who have committed low-level offenses.

Douglas Knight, director of Alternative Sentencing for the Queens D.A.’s Office, said the teens selected for the program are usually first time non-violent misdemeanor offenders, arrested for crimes such as petit theft or graffiti.

"We try to divert them from a typical criminal justice protocol into the Second Chance program," Knight said, adding that if teens complete the program, their cases are eventually dismissed and sealed. Otherwise, he said, "they would receive some sort of blemish on their record which may be detrimental to them in the future."

Young people chosen for the program, are required to come to the library twice a week for two hours for 16 weeks where they learn computer skills and practice job interviews. They also participate in art therapy and work on improving their self-esteem.

The participants also meet with police officers to break down barriers and to get to know them on a personal level.

"We give them life skills and show them possibilities in a relaxed atmosphere,” said Barbara Kavanagh, the program's administrator at the Queens Library. “The young adults leave the library with valuable knowledge while the whole community gains a better citizen. Everyone wins. It's a great investment."

The library also said that over the course of 15 years, only a handful of participants did not complete the program.

Khan said the key is to convince the teens "to ignore the negativity,” and that they “can change everything based on their mind.”

Khan, who came to the U.S. as a child from Trinidad, said he joined the gang after he was bullied at school. “I felt disconnected from society and that led to wrong decision making.”

But he said the program provided him with support, which made him feel he had something positive to offer society.

“We need to educate people so that they don’t offend again,” he said. “It’s a great idea to rehabilitate somebody instead of punishing them.”