New initiative seeks to keep juveniles out of trouble by keeping them out of jail

Posted: November 07, 2012

WITH THE NUMBER of juveniles arrested in Philadelphia dropping to its lowest point since 2007, the city and youth advocates are working to ensure that children who commit minor offenses are helped back on the right path.

Philadelphia has been selected to participate in the Juvenile Detention Alternative Initiative (JDAI), which focuses on jailing only those children who pose the most serious risks to public safety.

The initiative stresses the use of youth-development programs and home-monitoring devices to ensure that children who commit nonviolent or minor offenses are met with community-based resources that will prevent them from re-offending.

"The fact of the matter is, our youth - sooner or later - are going to have to return back to the community," said Faustino Castro, the city's chief juvenile-probation officer. "We're always looking to keep the youth where they are in their environment and try to provide the type of supportive services that they need."

The detention-alternative program, led by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is regarded as one of the nation's largest juvenile justice reforms since the early '90s and will be implemented in 39 states by the end of the year.

Youth advocates in New Jersey say the 16 counties using JDAI have saved an estimated $16 million annually by diverting children from secure detention to alternative programs. Only 3 percent of youth sent to the alternative programs committed another crime, according to a report released last month by a New Jersey child-advocacy organization.

"It has a very good track record of success in reducing a detention population without risking public safety," said Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children's Law and Policy, a juvenile-justice reform organization based in Washington, D.C. "This is not a jail break. It's not about just letting kids go."

Judge Kevin Dougherty, chief administrative judge of the family-court division, said the initiative hinges on similar tactics the city's courts are already using, such as community-based programs, to address juvenile justice. However, JDAI will help city agencies collect more comprehensive data on youth in the family-court system to determine how they can be served most effectively.

To determine whether a child needs to be sent to a detention facility, JDAI uses an evaluation system weighing the severity of a child's offense and whether he or she has been arrested before, have escaped from a placement facility or have failed to show up in court.

High-risk offenders are sent to a detention center, medium-risk juveniles are sent to work with youth-advocacy groups and low-risk children and teens are sent home to parents or guardians where their whereabouts are monitored by GPS tracking devices.

Family Court, the Department of Human Services and other city agencies are collaborating to form an assessment system for Philadelphia's version of the program.

"We are unique. We are the largest, biggest, poorest city in the country. One out of every three children you see on the street walks in poverty," Dougherty said. "As a result we are very conscious of that, and we want to make sure that any assessment tool is reflective of our needs to Philadelphia."

Police and other city officials can't explain why the number of juvenile arrests dropped from 11,016 in 2007 to 7,614 in 2011, but note that the numbers are part of a larger national decline in juvenile arrests.

Officials also said initiatives like Operation Pressure Point, in which police and probation officers focus on high-crime and drug-ridden areas, and youth mob violence in recent years may account for some of the fluctuation.

Regardless of why juvenile arrests are down, youth advocates say fewer children being sent through the family-court system lends the city an opportunity to reexamine its approach in juvenile justice and make the system more effective.

"I think the public will be better off, kids will be better off, the city will be better off financially, and Philadelphia will join the many communities around the country who are making a wise and rational use of secure detention centers," said Bob Schwartz, executive director of the Juvenile Law Center.

A day in juvenile detention costs about $700 per child, said Timene Farlow, deputy commissioner of Juvenile Justice Services.

The initiative also looks to confront some of the unintended consequences of confining children and teens who may not necessarily need to be detained.

"There is a significant danger of contagion, so that the child who is charged with a relatively minor offense will be housed with a child who has committed a more serious offense and will learn from the other child how to be more of a delinquent," Soler said.

"These young men are already lost, so they're looking at the wrong people for guidance as role models," said Wesley Jones, program director of Don't Fall Down in the Hood, a group run by the Institute for the Development of African-American Youth in North Philadelphia that works with teens referred by Family Court.

On a recent Thursday evening, a group of court-referred teens and their parents sat in the Kiva Auditorium at Temple University, listening to victims of crime explain how each incident affected them personally.

Deonna Sheard, 16, of Upper Darby, spent a day in the Youth Study Center after getting into a fight in September and said participating in the community-based program was likely better than the alternative of spending any more time in detention.

"They're giving us a chance to get our life together," she said, adding that the program so far is teaching her "not to do nothing that I was doing before: dumb stuff, being out in the neighborhood and being around the wrong people to do the right thing."

Her father, Bryant Sheard, nodded in agreement, saying detention alternatives the city is already using help close gaps between what struggling parents are able to teach their children and what the justice system expects of their kids after they've been adjudicated.

"It's not that the parents don't care. They do care. Not only are they overwhelmed, but they weren't taught. They don't have the skills," Jones said.

"We just thank God that there are programs like this to help the young youth getting their mind right and getting their life right before they make these mistakes when they get older," Bryant Sheard said as Deonna looked on, "when it's going to be too late for them."

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