Taking a step towards developing a truly practical and effective justice system for youth offenders, the state of New York has started an experimental juvenile court pilot program, called “Adolescent Diversion.” Although still under legislative consideration, the Youth Division bill, which contains the details of the new process, has become a beacon of hope for those who want to fix the inefficiency and punitive nature of the current process.
This rethinking of youth offender criminal protocol is quite topical now, considering it is appearing at the same time as a landmark Supreme Court decision, which has drawn a line in the sand, distinguishing teenage offenders from adult criminals. The high court ruling dictated that automatic life sentences without parole for juveniles violated the constitutional prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Although New York is focusing on nonviolent juvenile offenders as opposed to convicted felons, there has been a strong paradigm shift recently to revise what seems to be a broken juvenile criminal system.
Set up earlier this year, the Adolescent Diversion pilot program was created as a way to provide non-traditional methods of youth justice for 16 and 17-year old nonviolent offenders. As law currently stands in New York, you only have to be sixteen years of age to be tried as an adult, meaning that sixteen and seventeen year olds can potentially be subject to prosecution which meets fullest extent of the law. This makes New York one of only two states in America that has such a low age requirement, with the other being North Carolina.
What the program in question does is allow juveniles to bypass the regular criminal court system and go through a process that focuses on communication and rehabilitation. As for the process involved, one of the major changes is that the judge is able to speak directly to teens, as opposed to a cold, hands-off process that has alienated countless youth. Making the young adults active participants, along with encouraging parents to attend, allows the criminal process to be less antagonistic for youth who are still learning their place in society.
The pilot program encourages judges to confer with New York criminal defense attorneys, prosecutors and coordinators from the Center for Court Innovation, a public-private partnership that tests alternative criminal justice solutions. In order to find the most relevant treatment options, the youths are screened for potential risk factors to assess what the best course of action may be. This puts the juveniles in a position most suited for their personal situation, allowing them to learn from their mistakes through a focused plan of treatment.
Not only does the Adolescent Diversion program enable judges to engage youth in a more helpful and personal manner, it also keeps many young people away from probation, which would otherwise show up on their permanent record, an issue that could limit future employment and educational opportunities. Many New York City judges and legislators have been very happy with the initial results, but also know that more time is needed to see if it is truly an effective alternative, particularly when it comes to the issue of recidivism.
As it currently stands, recidivism in New York is at 40% within three years of release. Considering nations such as Norway, where rehabilitation is touted as their primary concern, have recidivism of below 20%, the practice seems to be gaining ground stateside. The particular treatments involved in the program, which can range from substance abuse courses to art programs, have already brought about some positive results. In fact, a treatment and community service center in Brooklyn has seen compliance rates of 80%, which is much higher than the average rate with the old requirements in place.
From a subjective standpoint, it seems likely that taking a greater interest in those accused of a juvenile offense will give that young person more of an incentive to follow the rules and consider their actions. We all know that teen’s will likely rebel when approached in a demeaning or cold manner, so taking the opposite approach would seem to be a strong alternative. Although we still have to be tough in our approach, the importance of doing so intelligently is paramount.
If introduced on a statewide scale, this program will surely require taxpayer money and work that is more exhaustive by those involved, considering the additional attention required. From a short-term perspective, the logistics and costs could be hard to rationalize from those with an austere outlook on public spending, but when you look long-term, and see that many of these young adults are learning from their mistakes and engaging in a process, rather than being shuffled through like just another number, this option becomes much more attractive. Human capital, similar to business venture, is predicated on smart investing, so if undertaken in the proper manner, these will likely pay for themselves.
It finally seems as though citizens, judges and legislators are becoming aware of the huge amounts of public funds wasted on the imprisonment of convicted criminals. Our justice system has become bloated, inefficient, unfair and reactive. For-profit prisons, mandatory minimum sentences and aggressive drug policy has slowly turned our society into a creeping police state that profits from crime while offering no alternatives for those convicted. Information, rehabilitation and rationalization will free us from the vicious cycle that has developed from shortsightedness and aggression.
Those responsible for this pilot program should be applauded for their forward thinking, rational mindset, and interest in providing a learning experience for those who are still growing and developing their worldview. At this point, the legislation itself has stalled in state congress, leaving it in no-man’s land until 2013. The reasoning is monetary in nature, with the worry of costs on the forefront of certain legislator’s minds. Even so, Richard Aborn, president of the non-profit Citizen Crimes Commission, which seeks to improve New York’s criminal justice system, said legislators had not objected to the substance of the bill, which bodes well for its eventual fate. “I think there is a growing consensus that these sorts of interventions with young offenders are effective in steering them away from a life in crime.” Hopefully New York lawmakers will eventually agree.