Adolescent Diversion Program: The Court System Pilots a New Approach to Young Offenders

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Adolescent Diversion Program:  The Court System Pilots a New Approach to Young Offenders

Adolescent Diversion Program: The Court System Pilots a New Approach to Young Offenders

NEW YORK, NY, March 1, 2012--In an effort to improve the judicial response to 16 and 17 year old offenders, the Center for Court Innovation is helping the New York State Court System pilot the Adolescent Diversion Program.

The program, launched in nine counties, assigns the cases of 16-and 17-year-olds to judges in Criminal Court who have received special training and have access to an expanded array of dispositional options. [UPDATE: Read an evaluation of the first six months of the program.]
 
If the initiative succeeds, Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman hopes to institutionalize it across the state. The initiative’s success will also provide urgency to related legislative changes that would, among other things, provide a way to divert young offenders from court to probation supervision, when appropriate.

Currently, New York is one of only two states where 16 and 17 year olds are treated as adults, even for non-violent offenses such as possession of controlled substances, petty larceny, fare evasion, trespass, graffiti, and criminal mischief. With their cases processed in Criminal Court rather than Family Court, adolescents in New York face the prospect of criminal convictions that could affect their future ability to gain employment, complete their education, reside lawfully in public housing, and pursue a range of other important life goals. 
  
In addition to the threat of a conviction, these young people also face the potential of incarceration in adult jails and prisons, which can have dire long-range consequences for vulnerable youths.

“The adult criminal justice system is simply not designed to address the special problems and needs of 16- and 17-year-olds,” said Judge Lippman in his 2012 State of the Judiciary Address.  “Study after study has confirmed that older adolescents who are prosecuted and convicted in criminal courts are more likely to re-offend, re-offend sooner, and go on to commit serious crimes at a higher rate than youths who go through the family court system.”

Recognizing that New York had fallen out of step with the rest of the country Judge Lippman issued a call for reform in the fall of 2011 that has been embraced by a range of good-government groups and by the New York Times editorial board, which wrote that “treating adolescents as adults is both counterproductive and morally unjustified.”

The creation of the pilots in the nine counties required no change in legislation, but at Lippman’s request, the New York State Permanent Sentencing Commission has drafted a proposed “Youth Court Act,” which will establish a new Youth Court to adjudicate cases in which 16- and 17-year-olds are charged with non-violent criminal conduct. “The Youth Court would combine the best features of the Family Court and the criminal courts,” Lippman explained.

“The goal is to encourage non-criminal dispositions so adolescents aren’t saddled with permanent criminal records," said Judge Judy Harris Kluger, the court system’s chief of policy and planning, who is overseeing the pilot parts. The key is “to recognize that these are still kids and there’s a chance we can turn them around if we treat them in a different way.”

Implementation of the Adolescent Diversion Program began in January 2012. The models vary from place to place depending upon local resources and priorities. The program build upon existing programs, with a particular focus on New York’s network of community courts operated by the Center for Court Innovation, including Bronx Community Solutions, the Red Hook Community Justice Center, the Midtown Community Court. The initiative will also work with the Center’s Staten Island Youth Justice Center and Queens Engagements Strategies for Teens (QUEST). Pilots have also started in Nassau County, Westchester County and Buffalo and Syracuse.

“The Adolescent Diversion Parts offer a genuine opportunity to test the impact of approaches that have worked well with juveniles at a number of our programs throughout the city,” said Al Siegel, the Center for Court Innovation’s deputy director. “Youth courts, cognitive groups and conducting assessments which allow us to link young people to appropriate services in the community, have proven successful with young people under the age of 16.  We are now testing how they will affect behaviors of a slightly older population, but a population that nonetheless is comprised of developing young people rather than adults.”

Under the initiative, judges hearing cases involving 16 and 17 year olds receive training in topics such as adolescent brain development, trauma, substance abuse, mental health, co-occurring disorders, education, and family issues. They also have access to expanded dispositional options, including community service and short-term social service interventions like sessions devoted to conflict resolution, civic responsibility, and vocational and educational goal setting.  By satisfying the conditions imposed by the court, participating defendants would be able to earn an outright dismissal of charges or reduction to non-criminal violations.

In Brooklyn, the cases tend to fall into two categories, according to Julian Adler, the director of the Red Hook Community Justice Center. In one category are low-level offenses committed by young people with no or minimal criminal histories. Those cases are usually resolved with a few days of mandated social services—often provided at the Red Hook Community Justice Center—and performance of community restitution. The other category involves more serious or complex cases. Those cases are referred from Brooklyn’s centralized courthouse for a full assessment in the Justice Center’s clinic. Based in part or in whole on the clinical team’s recommendation—which can include things like individual counseling, drug treatment, or educational services—the Kings County D.A.'s Office offers the youth the chance to have the case resolved without a permanent criminal record, on the condition that he or she completes the mandated services, which are provided by local organizations in the young person’s community.

“The clinic is providing a holistic and robust recommendation, which is allowing these young people to not only avoid the collateral consequences of a criminal record but also get the individualized help they need,” Adler said. “Our initial expectation was that most of the cases would be low-level misdemeanors but we’re seeing more serious cases, which are being resolved with longer periods of mandated treatment.”

The Center for Court Innovation will conduct an evaluation to assess case outcomes and compliance for program participants and a matched sample of 16- and 17-year-old defendants whose arrests preceded program implementation.

The Adolescent Diversion Program is just one sign of changes taking place in juvenile justice in New York. As Greg Berman and Alfred Siegel, the Center’s director and deputy director respectively, noted in a recent letter to the editor in the New York Law Journal, Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced his intention to close several youth prisons and move juvenile offenders from New York City into city-run facilities closer to their homes and Mayor Michael Bloomberg has significantly revamped how New York City works with troubled young people.

“Numerous studies have documented that community-based programs are demonstrably cheaper and more effective than incarceration,” they write.

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