D.A.’s Office Enlisting Volunteers to Help Wayward Youths

Facing a panel of neighbors might be better than facing a judge.

District Attorney Seth Williams | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

District Attorney Seth Williams | Photo by Matt Rourke/AP

Let’s say you’re a kid, all of 15 or 16, and you get caught doing something stupid. (Go ahead, think back to being that age. Surprise — you did a lot of stupid stuff.) Maybe it’s enough to get you locked up, like petty theft, or vandalism, or sneaking a drink in a park with your friends.

Would you want to end up cowering in front of a judge in an imposing courtroom, or take your chances with a panel that’s comprised of some people from your neighborhood?

District Attorney Seth Williams hopes decent kids who make minor screw-ups will opt for the latter as part of his office’s Youth Aid Panel program. The program isn’t exactly new — it’s been around since the late 1980s — but its value seems more relevant in an era where diversionary programs are viewed as a viable way to improve the lives of small-time offenders and lighten the criminal justice system’s load.

Here’s how it works: The D.A.’s Office trains volunteers from across the city who agree to oversee monthly hearings for non-violent, first-time juvenile offenders at their local police districts. The panels are made up of seven to nine residents who talk to the juveniles about their offenses, and dish out penalties.

“They decide what the the kid has to do,” Williams said on Tuesday afternoon, hours before he attended a graduation ceremony for 22 new Youth Aid Panel volunteers. “It might be community service. It might be writing an essay. It’s a type of restorative justice, which is something we talk about a lot now.”

The panel volunteers are supposed to stay on top of young defendants, and make sure they’re following through on their community service work, for example. “The program gives them people who care about them, and can point them in the right direction,” Williams said.  If the juveniles follow through, their records will be expunged.

Members of the D.A.’s Charging Unit decide if a young offender should be eligible for the program, and notify his or her parents about the opportunity. “The whole idea isn’t to crush them, but to get them back on the right track,” Williams said.

It’s another attempt at preventing kids who make small mistakes from getting lost in the gears of the court system. Former Philadelphia police Deputy Commissioner Kevin Bethel was named a Diana A. Millner Youth Justice Fellow by the Stoneleigh Foundation in January to expand a pre-arrest diversion program in the School District of Philadelphia that offers a break in a similar vein to kids who get in trouble for minor offenses on school grounds.

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