Philadelphia, Montgomery County cross-county initiative aims to provide second chance for non-violent juveniles

PHILADELPHIA (WPVI) -- Montgomery County recently celebrated 20 years behind its Youth Aid Panel program, which promotes restorative justice, providing a second chance for non-violent juveniles.

While Philadelphia has had a youth panel program since the late 1980s, within the last few years, the two counties have recently merged, launching a cross-county initiative.

"What we saw over the past couple years was that our youth were getting in trouble in the county," said Faith Harris, program coordinator for the Youth Aid Panel program in Philadelphia. "Particularly minor offenses, misdemeanor offenses like retail theft at the mall."

Harris says Philadelphia youth were not given the same restoration opportunities as youth who lived in the county because they were from the city.

"The two counties came together to do a cross-county initiative so that youth who would be arrested in the county, for a minor offense, would be afforded the same opportunities as a youth from the county," Harris added.

This process is all by way of using the youth aid panels in Philadelphia, to coordinate that the youth contractual obligations are met in good faith.

The District Attorney's Office in both Montco and Philly, currently supports and manages these youth aid panels.

Made up of community volunteers, 500-600 juveniles are admitted into the program and given a second chance through mentorships and other solution-based methods.

"Young people are one, being able to connect with positive adults, role models that they've never seen met before. Supportive figures that are in our community-based centers," said Harris.

Unlike traditional methods of intervention, Harris says the cross youth panels consist of after school programming, day programming that can be educationally based, sports-related, arts or even cultural.

"There doing job training, so they're preparing themselves for the future," she added.

Jordan King, who is the Director of Juvenile Diversion Programs said, "Our kids make mistakes. The Supreme Court says that kids are different, the science says kids are impulsive."

King says through programs like the youth aid panel, both he and Harris can connect youth members with critical resources within their neighboring locations.

In Montgomery County since 2000, the program has proven highly effective by preventing additional crime with a recidivism rate of just 4.3 percent.

Harris says the goal is to build off these stats in the city, to effectively deter future criminal behavior into adulthood.

"We know that young people are speaking out more than ever, because of social justice, said Harris. "We know that they understand about diversity, they understand about discrimination and racial injustice."

Harris says her team at the city's D.A.O wants to make sure that the youth are expressing themselves in the right way.

"We're giving them opportunities where they can be themselves, and they can have people who are there to support them," she added. "So even if they make a mistake and get into trouble, we want to make sure they understand that's not the end of the road."
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