Webinar Highlights Prosecutor-Led Juvenile Justice Reforms

Posted February 26, 2020, By the Annie E. Casey Foundation

Juvenile justice reformers learning from other experts

A new webinar explores prosecutor-led efforts to reform the juvenile justice system by implementing measures that are less adversarial and less punitive. Prosecutors as Leaders of Reform features three prosecutors from JDAI® jurisdictions — Harris County, Texas; King County, Washington; and Philadelphia — who are using the power of their offices to advance rehabilitation, fairness, equity and accountability.

Harris County, Texas (home to Houston

During the webinar, John Jordan, the juvenile division chief of the Harris County, Texas District Attorney’s Office noted that his office has changed the criteria prosecutors must apply in determining whether to accept charges from police. Beyond probable cause, prosecutors must now consider the nature of the misconduct ― whether it represents normal youth behavior, for example. They also must consider individual factors such as age, disability, mental health and child welfare status and whether an appropriate diversion program is available.

Jordan added that the DA’s office has also:

  • launched a training tour for school resource officers and school administrators, including a video that captures the trauma of being arrested in school; and
  • expanded diversion options to include a program for sexual assaults that occur in the home; a respite diversion option for youth involved in domestic violence against a parent or guardian; a marijuana diversion program that avoids arrest; a school diversion program that targets schools with the highest referral rates; and an upcoming dual-status diversion program for young people who are involved in the child welfare and juvenile justice systems.

After the training, school referrals to court decreased 38% between 2018 and 2019, with 48% of school cases now being diverted from formal court processing.

King County, Washington (home to Seattle)

Philip Sanchez, the senior deputy prosecuting attorney of the juvenile division of the King County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office, spoke about a diversion program the DA’s office created with King County and City of Seattle agencies after determining that 90% of youth domestic violence cases involved family members. The program can provide services for families in crisis and respite care for youth who are involved in domestic violence against a family member, avoiding adversarial paths through the legal system. Sanchez discussed Community Empowered Disposition Alternative Resolution, which offers the possibility of reduced charges for young people accused of committing a serious or violent offense for the first time. If youth successfully engage in services, or make connections with mentors who share their background — known as credible messengers, their charges may be reduced to a misdemeanor or even dismissed.

Philadelphia

Robert Listenbee, the first assistant district attorney of the Philadelphia Office of the District Attorney, shared that over the past two years, 70% of cases directly filed in the adult system have returned to the juvenile system, thanks to concerted efforts by the DA’s office to reverse the transfer of youth to the adult system. Listenbee added that the DA’s office is committed to:

  • aiming to divert from the justice system all cases of youth ages 10-12, and as many misdemeanor cases as possible; and
  • working with community-based organizations to divert youth who typically would not be diverted, such as those who have committed non-violent felonies or who have committed repeat offenses.

The webinar presenters urged audience members to engage prosecutors in their reform efforts. John Jordan of Harris County, Texas said, “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere.”

Mark Soler, executive director of the Center for Children’s Law and Policy and an Annie E. Casey Foundation partner, moderated the webinar, which was organized by the Casey Foundation’s JDAI training partner, the Pretrial Justice Institute. The webinar is adapted from a workshop at the 2019 JDAI Inter-site Conference.

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