Berkshire DA's new Juvenile Justice Initiative aims to divert delinquent youths from court system

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PITTSFIELD — Since June 1, the Berkshire District Attorney's office has diverted 32 youths away from the criminal justice system in favor of programs that they say will help them turn around their lives.

On Tuesday, DA Andrea Harrington, who was joined by more than a dozen politicians, county officials and community leaders, announced the launch of her office's formalized juvenile diversion program.

"Here's the simple truth: We need to treat kids like kids, not just at home and at school, but in our criminal justice system," Harrington said. "The more we rely on the criminal justice system to meet the needs of our youth, the more they believe that is where they belong."

State criminal justice law advises district attorneys to create formalized diversion programs, providing juveniles who are accused of delinquency charges access to restorative programming outside of the criminal justice system and prior to their arraignment in juvenile court.

Berkshire County previously had an informal juvenile diversion program, where some delinquency cases were diverted prior to arraignment by the clerk-magistrate of the juvenile court. Those minors would then have access to alternative sentencing programs offered through the juvenile probation office and community partners.

Going forward, the Juvenile Justice Initiative will be run out of the District Attorney's office, where one full-time social worker, along with the assistant district attorney assigned to the juvenile court and office supervisors, will oversee cases, Harrington said.

The initiative also has an advisory committee that includes officials with backgrounds in mental health, education, law enforcement, community organizing and other fields. The group will review data collected on the program and its results as time goes on, she said.

"What we have seen in our experience thus far is that without having a formal program, there is a lot of discrepancy in how different kids are treated," Harrington said.

With her program, every child charged with a delinquency matter that is not a danger to himself or others will be assessed on whether they qualify for diversion. Those minors will then be required to follow a "rigorous and individualized program" involving a mental health and substance abuse services, youth programs, mentors and job placements, utilizing resources provided by about 30 community organizations.

In exchange, they will not be arraigned in court and avoid garnering a record, Harrington said.

Shirley Edgerton, a cultural proficiency coach for Pittsfield Public Schools, is a community organizer who works with minors through a variety of city programming. She sits on the advisory committee.

"The DA's office will finally be using the diversity of our community to its advantage," she said. "Research shows that those engaging in criminal behavior, the vast majority age out of offending behavior by their mid-20s."

State Sen. Adam Hinds, D-Pittsfield also spoke in support of the initiative.

In 2014, Hinds helped create Pittsfield Community Connection, a program that works with youth at risk of gang violence.

"They were most responsive to backing away from activity that we didn't agree with when we addressed 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 so they can get the coolest shoes," Hinds said, of his experience with the program. "It was those things that really seemed to matter."

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While Berkshire County has offered an array of programming and services through the probation department, including a clinician assigned to the court, it was the last district in the state without a formalized program through the DA's office.

Instead the juvenile probation department, since the early 2000s, had been developing and managing "alternative sentencing programs." These programs, which include partnerships with theaters, colleges and other organizations, were designed to address some of the underlying issues that may have prompted the delinquency acts in the first place, the former and current juvenile probation chiefs have previously said.

The minors are also assessed and overseen by the department's six probation officers and evaluated by a juvenile court clinician for mental health issues.

Going forward, minors diverted from arraignment will still have access to some of the same programming already offered, Harrington said.

"Some of those partners are being shared," Harrington said through a spokesman. "We have our own agreements with these partners and we've added more community organizations."

The probation officers will still oversee care and protection cases involving the Department of Children and Families involvement, Child Requiring Assistance petitions, and serious delinquency cases that aren't eligible for diversion, Harrington said.

"Probation will still be responsible for those children who need intense structure," Harrington's spokesman Andrew McKeever said by email. "Our screening process will determine which children are right for our program. We will be letting our community partners be the experts they are in their fields."

One of the biggest goals for the initiative is to get minors who are committing low-level, nonviolent offenses community-based help they need before they are arraigned in court or are committed to juvenile detention centers.

In 2018, just one of 1,159 Berkshire youth involved with juvenile court was eligible to be indicted as a "youthful offender," a designation for serious or chronic youth offenders.

Since Harrington took office, there have been 122 juvenile cases, but only 37 of those cases have involved an arraignment, she said. Harrington said her office didn't have similar data under her predecessor.

As for the number of minors sentenced by a judge to a juvenile detention center, the numbers are already trending down, according to data provided by McKeever.

Between January and August 2017, 13 minors were sentenced to a juvenile detention center, with nine of them being committed and four having their sentences suspended.

The next year, there were 15 total sentences, with nine committed and six suspended.

So far this year, there have been 10 total detention center sentences, with seven committed and three suspended.

Like Harrington, Dalton Police Chief Jeffrey Coe said Tuesday that harsh prosecution of low-level juvenile offenses can "unintentionally trap young people in a cycle of crime and poverty."

"Law enforcement leaders must continue to work together and create better paths to bright futures for kids," he said. "In our community, we have previously tried this informally. Thanks to District Attorney Harrington, we now have a strong partner and a clear formal process."

Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at horecchio@berkshireeagle.com, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.


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