D.C.’s youth diversion programs face an uncertain future

March 16
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Davis, 16, was going out too late, getting in fights, skipping school. It was stupid stuff, until a police officer busted him for fighting.

Instead of going to jail, Davis was sent to the Youth Court of the District of Columbia. Early one Saturday morning in the fall, he stood in front of a “jury” of his peers (quite literally — they’d all come before the same court months before) and explained what he had done.

The kids sanctioned Davis to weekly sessions with a mentor, who could help him manage his anger.

“Having to tell other kids what you did, you just see how stupid it is,” said Davis, whose full name was withheld since there is no permanent record of his arrest.

He is one of the hundreds of kids under 18 arrested in D.C. each year for non-violent crimes such as shoplifting, chronic truancy or drug possession. Many have never been in trouble with the law before. “I learned,” he said.

For years, many teens like Davis were sent to the Youth Court, a so-called “diversion program” that works to help kids behave better and stay out of jail. But now the program is in jeopardy.

In October, D.C. stopped funding the two primary diversion programs in the city, Youth Court and Access Youth, a mediation program. They were paid for by government grants since 1996, but run as nonprofits.

At the time, the city said it planned to develop its own, comprehensive youth justice programs. But that decision caused a small outcry among the city’s juvenile justice advocates.

“I’ve had parents come up and tell me that their daughter never would have gotten into college with a scholarship if she’d had a record,” said Edgar Cahn, a lawyer and the founder of Youth Court. “These programs significantly reduce recidivism.”

The facts bear that out. In D.C., 25 percent for kids sent through the regular juvenile justice system get re-arrested compared to 11 percent of Youth Court participants, according to the Youth Court’s executive director, Carolyn Dallas. Youth court also saves the city money – it costs $2,000 to send a teenager through the regular court, but only $500 for Youth Court, she said.

Now, Youth Court and Access Youth are open again, at least temporarily. The city floated Youth Court $75,000 in February, enough to re-open for several months. But Dallas says it is not enough to last through the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

She and others are scrambling to raise the extra funds. They’re also pushing D.C. to include funding for the Youth Court in the city budget when it is negotiated in April. But that is far from a sure thing.

One challenge, advocates say, is figuring out which government agency will take the lead. Should  youth diversion programs be the responsibility of the Attorney General? Health and human services? The D.C. public schools?

“We’re being as proactive as we can in terms of meeting with the deputy mayors and trying to figure out what the plan is,” said Jodi Ovca, who runs Access Youth. “We’re at a crucial point in the budget system.”

Amanda Erickson is deputy editor of PostEverything.
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