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Harrington launches new juvenile justice initiative

This piece originally appeared in the Berkshire Edge.

District Attorney Andrea Harrington launched a new juvenile justice initiative Tuesday.

The plan will hold juvenile offenders accountable while encouraging positive youth development through proven strategies to reduce teen recidivism and address the root causes of delinquency. It is a shift from a court-centered model of addressing juvenile delinquency to a community-based model, focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

It includes prioritizing diversion, expanding community programming, advocating for new policies, and creating a community-led advisory committee.

“The studies are clear that most young adults will grow out of criminal behavior by their mid-twenties and the vast majority of these crimes are low-level offenses,” Harrington said. “The decision-making part of a child’s brain is not fully developed until the age of 25. With appropriate interventions instead of aggressive prosecution, we, as a community, can help make the next generation safer and healthier.”

The initiative is a complementary piece to the Criminal Justice Reform Act, backed by the Berkshire delegation, passed by the Massachusetts Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker last year. The bill made several changes to how the justice system addresses delinquency, including decriminalizing certain minor and school-based offenses and creating a mechanism to increase the use of diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration.

The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office created a Juvenile Justice Unit and is growing its diversion program, which builds on the foundation set by the Probation Court and the Juvenile Court. The unit includes a prosecutor, victim witness advocate, and diversion coordinator.

The offending youth will be required to follow a rigorous and individualized program involving a combination of mental health and substance abuse services, youth programs, mentors, and job placements to avoid court involvement. The individualized plan holds youth to a higher but more appropriate standard of behavior than has been traditionally required in the justice system.

At the same time, the office will continue to place a high priority on supporting the victims of crimes. Guidelines are in place to ensure that victims in cases deemed eligible for juvenile diversion have access to victim services and advocacy.

The initiative does not only reform the approach inside the district attorney’s office but extends throughout the community.

A team of community members representing diverse backgrounds, geography and expertise will provide leadership on juvenile justice matters. The committee will make policy recommendations, facilitate training, and review data collected through juvenile justice programs to identify areas for improvement and to ensure juveniles are being treated fairly across all demographics.

The members for the inaugural term are the following:

The constant oversight will help address racial disparities that exist in the juvenile justice system now. Children of color represent roughly a third of the total youth population in Massachusetts while representing 60% of youth who are arraigned, according to Citizens for Juvenile Justice.

More than 30 community organizations have already agreed to dedicate resources to help at-risk youth through this initiative. Those organizations will be providing and/or expanding youth programming, mentorships, jobs and health services.

Through a collaborative process, this initiative looks to bolster prevention programs in county schools.

The initiative will also enforce accountability for a youth’s actions through restorative practices. Restorative justice goes beyond traditional discipline by instilling problem-solving and anger-management skills, and giving the youths the opportunity to right with what they’ve done wrong. The victim will be made whole and have a meaningful role in the process.

Finally, the district attorney’s office will advocate for new policies and legislation that support juvenile justice programs. One such bill would raise the age of the juvenile court’s jurisdiction to 21, allowing for the expansion of developmentally appropriate interventions for emerging adults.

The reform recognizes that children, teens and emerging adults are highly influenced by their environment and that interactions with courts and jails have been proven to have negative effects on a teenager’s long-term success and increase the likelihood of re-offending.

“Middle and high school is a challenging time for teenagers. It is when they are coming of age and finding their identities. At that age, they are heavily impacted by their environments and by the people who surround them,” Harrington said.

“If we treat them like criminals, they begin to believe that’s who they are. We believe that if we intervene early and address the root causes, we can guide them away from a life of crime.”

Throughout Massachusetts, the highest recidivism rate is among the 18- to-24-year-old age bracket; and 85% of youth arraigned in court are accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes. Half of the teenagers in detention have only misdemeanors as their most serious offenses. In 2018, just one of 1,159 Berkshire youth involved with juvenile court was eligible to be indicted as a “youthful offender,” which is designated for serious or chronic offenders.

The costs are high. In 2014, the Justice Policy Institute reported that it costs Massachusetts taxpayers $172,824 per year to incarcerate one juvenile.

That doesn’t account for the fact that those youth are less likely to graduate high school, will earn less money throughout their lives, pay less in taxes, rely more on public assistance, and likely offend again, leading to more resources being spent on future victims.

It is estimated that between $8 billion and $21 billion is spent nationally per year for long-term costs associated with incarcerating youth. This initiative looks to shift spending from courts and jails to programs that support positive youth development to reduce those long-term costs.

This piece originally appeared in the Berkshire Edge.



Posted in JPI in the News, Criminal Justice News

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