Johnson County diversion program to offer youth a chance to avoid court

First-of-its-kind initiative aims to help minority youth

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Sometimes the answer isn’t more days in jail. Sometimes a diversion can be part of the solution.

By implementing a new, first-of-its-kind-in-the-state pre-charge diversion program, police, school officials, juvenile court services and other agencies hope to lower juvenile crime while at the same time reduce disproportionate minority contact.

In Johnson County in 2012, 57 black minors were accused of disorderly conduct compared with only 11 white minors, according to a 2013 report prepared by the Iowa Department of Human Rights’s Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning.

Across all offenses, 304 black minors were referred to Johnson County Juvenile Court in 2012 compared with 303 white minors.

Those figures become more stark when the populations of the two races are considered — white minors outnumbered black minors in the county by a margin of 8,188 to 1,073. Black minors were also detained in juvenile detention at a higher rate — 63 black minors in 2012 compared with 43 white.

The referral numbers expose two key issues for Johnson County officials — the disproportionate representation of blacks in the juvenile justice system, and that once a minor is entrenched within the criminal system, the more likely he or she is to stay in the system.

Now a group of police, school, court and county officials believe they have a solution to both problems — a true Juvenile Court diversion program that helps keep minors out of the court system. In the words of Iowa City Police Capt. Doug Hart, the program will “lead the way on a progressive way to reduce disproportionate minority contact.”

Hart emphasized the program is not police-driven and the department is just one partner at the table. The inclusion of the other partners — such as schools and juvenile courts — provides a set of checks and balances.

The diversion program — anticipated to be rolled out at the beginning of the 2014 school year — will put more emphasis on school-based corrective actions and give low-level offenders with little or no criminal history extra opportunities to avoid that first contact with the Juvenile Court system.

A collaborative effort

The initiative was born out of local officials’ participation in Georgetown University’s Reducing Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Juvenile Justice Certificate Program. The intensive five-day program aims to teach participants how to reduce minority contact with the juvenile justice system.

Iowa City Police Det. Kevin Bailey, the department’s juvenile investigator, called the Georgetown program some of the most valuable training of his 16-year career thanks to its focus on all entities that work with juveniles, not just the police.

“The goal is to take a look at our systems, plural,” Bailey said. “Are you successful? Are you not successful? And how can you be more successful?”

Bailey said the training covered every aspect of racial and ethnic diversity. And recognizing that the topic can get emotional, he appreciated that the program was driven by data.

Given the breadth of the juvenile crime issue, Bailey said the group is starting small and focusing on disorderly conduct, which typically entails fighting. Much of the focus will be on what happens in the school, where many of these offenses occur and, importantly, where access to support services is available.

Bailey noted that the Georgetown instructors urged participants to “keep it small, work out the kinks,” before tackling bigger issues.

“We need to take a small step and master that,” he said.

Under the diversion model, police will not respond to the first offense involving a juvenile — providing it’s not a major fight or disruption and the juvenile does not have a significant prior record.

Police will get involved with the second offense. Stakeholders — police, school officials and juvenile courts — will determine if diversion is appropriate.

“Diversion is a privilege, and it doesn’t escape responsibility,” Bailey said, adding there will be an emphasis on accountability in the diversion program.

A third offense or a significant fight or disruption will result in a referral to Juvenile Court.

The diversion program is voluntary and no juvenile will be required to participate.

Candice Bennett, chief Juvenile Court officer for Iowa’s Sixth Judicial District, said the district has been working since 2007 on evidence-based practices, which research shows are effective in gaining successful outcomes with juveniles.

Bailey said the diversion from Juvenile Court will involve two to four hours of one-on-one community service, writing an impact letter and a “stop and think sheet” that will get juveniles to walk through their actions and decision-making.

At all steps, officials will be able to do risk assessments to learn if there are other issues at play, such as problems at home.

“Much of the research suggests if you can keep a kid in school and the school can still be safe, keep that kid there,” said Dave Kuker, executive officer with the state’s Division of Criminal and Juvenile Justice Planning. “Being out of the classroom for a brief period of time or for a long period of time begins the process of disconnection.”

Joan VandenBerg, youth and family development coordinator at the Iowa City Community School District, said she would like to see the district partner with community service agencies to provide youth with the appropriate community service.

VandenBerg said she wants the community service component to be separate from the school, so it is more powerful and not just seen as more classwork.

For Ann Feldmann, assistant superintendent of the Iowa City Community School District, there has been one clear goal of the program — reducing disproportionate minority contact.

“That’s what everyone is striving for here, to bring consistency based on data to our systems,” Feldmann said. “When you cast that net, you cast that net that it catches all kids, knowing that it will impact all kids, and in particular, our kids of color.”

Overrepresentation

“If we’re successful, we’re going to see a significant reduction in disparity,” Hart said.

Kuker said disorderly conduct is where “kids of color stack up at arrest.” By targeting that type of offense, officials hope they can safely reduce referrals to juvenile court services.

Bennett, of the Sixth Judicial District, said she is hopeful the diversion program will assist the district in diverting youth, making sure they have accountability for their actions, “but yet are diverted way from formal court action.”

“This decreases their risk of becoming further involved with the Juvenile Court system,” she said.

Diversion programs such as the one that will be introduced in Iowa City have been attempted elsewhere, but in communities and schools that are larger than Iowa City, Bailey said.

Hart noted it will be the first program of its kind in the state.

“It’s just the right thing to do to give a kid a shot at diversion first,” Bailey said. “Most first-time offenders, with a little intervention, they don’t reoffend.

“Diversion needs to be tried first.”

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