Dalton Police Chief Jeffrey Coe says the policies of intervention will keep communities safer.
PITTSFIELD, Mass. — The district attorney's office is partnering with communities and local organizations to create a juvenile justice system focused on the roots of delinquency.
"As community leaders, we are all responsible for creating an environment where our children can grow and thrive," said District Attorney Andrea Harrington. "That's why my office is launching a comprehensive Juvenile Justice Initiative that will work toward keeping children out of the court system and building safer, healthier communities."
Harrington made the announcement on Tuesday morning in front of the Boys and Girls' Club and backed by the county's two mayors Linda Tyer of Pittsfield and Thomas Bernard of North Adams, state officials, members of her office and school and law enforcement leaders including Dalton Police Chief Jeffrey Coe and North Adams Police Chief Jason Wood.
The initiative is being driven in large part by the state's recently enacted criminal justice reform and, said Harrington, is a fulfillment of her pledge that if elected, she "would adopt a criminal justice policy based on data and evidence based on a sense of fairness and justice."
"Our approach is based on proven data that will enhance public safety by preventing and curbing criminal behavior and by supporting victims," she said, later adding, that "the old guard's claim that policing low-level crime is necessary to protect the public is not just wrong, it has had serious negative impacts on our young people, and particularly on communities of color. ...
"This initiative is ambitious. But that is what is required of any office charged with the welfare of our community's children."
There are five elements to the effort: the creation of a "Juvenile Justice Unit" within the DA's office; a Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee composed of members from diverse backgrounds to set policy recommendations, training and review data; an expansion of community partnerships to provide more connections for juveniles; accountability that includes restorative justice for victims; and advocacy by the office for state and federal policies supporting juvenile justice.
The goal is to divert youth arrested for low-level crimes into alternative programs prior to arraignment to give them a chance to correct their behavior and avoid a court record that can follow them through life.
Shirley Edgerton, the cultural proficiency coach for the Pittsfield Public Schools, said the initiative's approach will tailor resources to the individual and "will finally be using the diversity of our community to its advantage."
"Secondly, this approach recognizes the fact that developmentally, young adults are more prone to impulsive behavior and heavily influenced by their environments," she said. "Research finds that of those engaging in criminal behavior, the vast majority age out of offending behavior by the mid-20s, particularly with developmentally appropriate interventions matched with the juveniles' risk level and needs.
"Since the young adult brain is still developing, young people are highly amenable to rehabilitation."
State Sen. Adam Hinds noted he had had a part in creating the former Pittsfield Community Connection to address the needs of the city's youth.
"They were most responsive to backing away from activity that we didn't agree with when we address the problems at home, when we made sure they had assistance with their education, when we made sure they had a job and a little bit of income," he said.
Some 85 percent of teens arraigned are involved in nonviolent crimes, the senator said, and about 50 percent in detention are there for nonviolent crimes. Punitive punishments can be a trigger for increasing the likelihood for dropping out of school or having a lifelong record that can affect the ability to get a job.
"It's important to translate the Criminal Justice Reform Act of last year into tangible programs and tangible work on the ground," Hinds said. "So that we are going after these kids to give them the support and the love they need and the respect in the community, and bringing that community around them."
Diversionary programs have been used for young offenders over the years but not as a developed policy or with any equity.
The Juvenile Justice Initiative now creates policy and a process for evaluating youth crimes with the district attorney's office. Harrington said that so far out of 122 cases, some 37 went to arraignment: those cases dealt with significant mental health issues, operating under the influence, dangerousness hearings, failures from a previous diversion program and high-risk teens.
Harrington said youth will be assessed for diversionary programs with the exceptions of OUI — saying it was a matter of public safety and first offense charges have shown to be a deterrent in those cases — and those deemed dangerous. The justice unit will consist of a prosecutor, victim's advocate and diversion coordinator, as well as a social worker hired in January who will be the case manager. Those entering diversion programs will be held accountable to a signed agreement with the DA's office to complete any requirements.
The district attorney said she could not really compare how such cases were disposed prior to her taking office because that data wasn't readily available. However, the new program will be tracking cases and success rates.
"The really critical piece of this program is about collecting data and being transparent and accountable to the community, and making sure that all kids are being treated equally across the county," she said.
Dalton Police Chief Jeffrey Coe said these policies will give officers more tools for community policing and young people a better chance to thrive in their communities rather than be incarcerated for minor offenses.
"This can unintentionally trap young people in a cycle of crime and poverty," he said. "It's difficult to escape and only becomes harder as they get older."
While the district attorney's office does not provide diversion programs — that's where strong connections with more than 30 local programs come in — funding now being spent in court can be channeled to better serve communities.
Harris said a "tremendous amount of money" is spent in the criminal justice system in arresting kids, prosecuting kids, detaining kids.
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. And in 2014, the Justice Policy Institute reported that it costs Massachusetts taxpayers $172,824 per year to incarcerate one juvenile.
"My office will have more time, money and staff to work with the survivors of serious crimes and to make them whole," she said, adding that victims as well are often not served by a "drawn-out zero sum game" in the court system. "Restorative justice practices will alleviate this burden for victims of crime."
Harrington said the law enforcement officers and community leaders supporting her rejected the policies of "hyper enforcement and harsh prosecution" as a way to deter youthful offenders.
"The more we rely on the criminal justice system to address the needs of our youth, the more they believe that that is where they belong," she said. "We believe that if we intervene early and address the root causes of crime, we can guide young people away from a life of crime."
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