Successful Alternatives: Juvenile Diversion and Restorative Justice in Suffolk County
by Former Suffolk County District Attorney Daniel F. Conley, Assistant District Attorney Michael V. Glennon and Erin Freeborn, Executive Director of Communities for Restorative Justice
Since 2017 prosecutors in Suffolk County have made efforts to improve and modernize their approach to juvenile justice. These efforts include an ambitious juvenile diversion program and, more recently, a restorative justice initiative, in partnership with Communities for Restorative Justice to give victims of crime an opportunity to address the people who have harmed them. The diversion program seeks to identify the needs and risk factors that pre-date offense and arrest, and to address them outside the traditional juvenile justice system. The restorative justice initiative is a voluntary process by which offenders, victims, and members of the community come together to collectively identify and address the harms, needs, and obligations created by, and identified as a result of, a criminal act. The combined result is a model that may prove valuable for other prosecutors’ offices nationwide.
Most juveniles who enter the justice system have a complex set of needs and risk factors that pre-date offense and arrest. Research shows that identifying and addressing these makes for effective rehabilitation efforts. For too many young people, however, the opportunities for this type of assessment are frequently missed until their conduct brings them into contact with the juvenile justice system, and is often delayed until after a juvenile has been charged, prosecuted, and adjudicated delinquent. In a busy, urban court system, where most juveniles are released to their parents, this process can take months or years – during which time those needs and risks may remain unaddressed.
Prosecutor-led diversion efforts, such as the Juvenile Alternative Resolution Program (“JAR”), can fill this gap meaningfully and effectively. Overseen through the DA’s Juvenile Unit, the Suffolk County JAR program seeks to support juveniles with a moderate or high risk assessment, while low-risk juveniles (those charged with first- or second-time misdemeanor offenses) are usually diverted informally with minimal supervision. Only the most serious offenses – sex offenses, gun crimes, and crimes causing serious injury to a victim – are automatically ineligible for diversion. Since the JAR program launched last year, it has accepted 70 juveniles charged with more than 100 separate offenses. Only three participants – less than 5% – have been removed from the program for violating the terms of participation. Thirty have successfully completed the program and the remaining 40 are on track to do so. Since the pilot phase ended, JAR has expanded to include more neighborhoods in Boston and is expected to nearly double in capacity, taking in close to 100 juveniles during the second year. Overall, about 65% of Suffolk County delinquency proceedings, or over 500 cases, are diverted informally or formally through JAR – 10 times more than are subject to youthful offender indictments
This success is particularly notable because the JAR program accepts juveniles who present with higher risk factors, which is possible because candidates complete a two-stage screening process to determine the level and nature of services appropriate to their circumstances. Courtroom prosecutors first assess the juvenile using the Ohio Youth Assessment System – Diversion (OYAS-DIV) tool to determine risk level and help the prosecutor determine whether informal diversion, formal diversion through JAR, or traditional juvenile proceedings are appropriate. For JAR-eligible candidates, the DA’s diversion coordinator meets with the juvenile and guardian separately to perform a more extensive assessment interview, including completion of the Youth Level of Services/Case Management Inventory (YLS/CMI) 2.0 assessment, which determines the juvenile’s criminogenic needs and strengths. Specific risk factors and needs that lead to criminal behavior are identified and categorized. Once the areas of highest risk are identified, the juvenile immediately enters programming tailored to their needs in order to mitigate them and lower the likelihood that they will re-offend. This has resulted in successes like “John,” who entered the juvenile court essentially homeless after being charged with Receiving Stolen Property and Breaking and Entering. John was assigned to work with the Detention Diversion Advocacy Program (DDAP) where he received resources, including a mentor, therapist, and support leading to summer employment. He successfully completed JAR, received no criminal record, is doing well in school and has not recidivated.
Chronically underfunded district attorney’s offices in Massachusetts do not have the financial resources, staff, or training to provide rehabilitation services. As a result, Suffolk prosecutors have built strong partnerships with community-based agencies who carry out the programing recommended through the screening process. Candid and collaborative alliances with non-profits, social service providers, and other agencies working directly with youth, families, and communities are essential in this regard. The majority of diverted juveniles complete three to nine months of individualized programming through the partner agencies, including therapy, job preparation and placement, educational support, mentorship, life skills training, substance abuse counseling, and more. To ensure honest participation at each stage, the juvenile is protected with a contract ensuring that nothing they disclose will be used to prosecute the underlying case.
Targeting the risk factors that have the greatest likelihood for recidivism advances the interests of public safety, offender accountability, rehabilitation, and satisfaction for both the victim and the community, all while reducing future barriers to success. Speed is important to the program’s success, both in the rapid assessment of the juvenile’s risk factors and needs and in following through with the recommendations as quickly as possible.
Because prosecutors direct most JAR participants into diversion prior to arraignment, the underlying charges do not appear on the juvenile’s criminal record – a decision that prosecutors made for its significant long-term implications. Having a criminal record can complicate important, stabilizing life choices such as pursuing higher education, seeking stable employment, and applying for a loan. Despite these considerations, creation of a criminal record may be necessary given the seriousness of the offense and the risk the offender poses to their community. By reducing the number of juveniles who enter adulthood with a record, prosecutors are confident that they can balance public safety with the enduring public benefit of emphasizing diversion over traditional juvenile prosecution.
In addition to the more traditional diversion programs described above, a JAR assessment may recommend the use of restorative justice circles as a key process to give victims, communities, and the juvenile a voice, while also addressing any threats to public safety. Through this process, the offender accepts responsibility for their actions and takes steps to repair the harm they have caused to a victim and the community. A highly trained volunteer facilitates the meeting process over a period of months. The process is tailored to each participant and may involve regular group meetings, known as circles. Circles may involve the victim, other community participants, law enforcement officials, and the offender. Undertaken appropriately, restorative justice leads to long-term healing for the offender and the community while lowering the likelihood of recidivism.
Communities for Restorative Justice (C4RJ) promotes and facilitates these circles to give victims of crime an opportunity, in a safe environment, to address the people who have harmed them and determine how the harm may be repaired. The offender is held meaningfully accountable, comes to understand the impact of their actions, and makes amends to those affected by the underlying offense.
C4RJ’s restorative circles already operate in numerous jurisdictions. They have a recidivism rate of just 16% and a 98% participation satisfaction rate last year as measured by offenders and victims. Restorative justice works because the offender learns empathy and gains stronger connections to the people affected by their actions, while the victim and community become more engaged in the process and outcome.
The restorative justice collaboration among stakeholders inside and outside the criminal justice system has produced an outstanding result: reliable, validated assessment data matched with specific, individualized programming to place the right juveniles in the right programs to address their unique needs and cut short the cycle of recidivism.
The spread of C4RJ’s effective programming and the proven successes of the Suffolk County District Attorney’s JAR program should encourage all justice partners to look at evidence-based alternatives to “business as usual.” Those engaging in restorative work across the Commonwealth should consider partnerships with their local criminal justice professionals, many of whom have proven themselves to be open and enthusiastic supporters of new and innovative ideas. The pieces are all on the board – together, we can keep moving them forward.
The Suffolk County District Attorney’s office is eager to partner with qualified individuals and agencies to improve diversionary outcomes. By enhancing the restorative justice component in an already effective diversion model, prosecutors believe they can achieve short-term benefits for individuals and long-term benefits to the community. Interested candidates for JAR partnerships should contact Juvenile Unit Deputy Chief Michael V. Glennon at Michael.V.Glennon@MassMail.State.MA.US.
Communities for Restorative Justice needs community volunteers who are interested in doing this work in Suffolk County. If you would like to help make a difference in your community, you can learn more at www.C4RJ.org or fill out a volunteer application at https://bit.ly/2ya8z5K.