Juvenile Court Prosecutors Not Recognized As the Innovative, Dedicated Leaders They Are

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Given all the public attention surrounding reforming the criminal justice system, it is puzzling that the juvenile justice system has been largely ignored in these conversations. For all the legislation targeting “second chances” and “reentry” initiatives, little attention seems to be on what we are doing on the front end.

How are we responding at the “first chance”? For those coming into contact with the justice system, it is the juvenile justice system that is often the first point of contact and a place of incredible opportunity. If we focused more on what we were doing on the front end, we could be having a dramatic effect across the entire justice continuum.

While the headlines may not be covering what is going on in the juvenile justice system, there are many devoted professionals working tirelessly behind the scenes and they know the significant strides that have been made. The overall juvenile justice population has decreased by over 1 million youth, and we have seen the emergence of policies and practices that are supported by data and research. Because of this decline in caseloads, those working on the front lines have a greater opportunity to work on prevention and early intervention efforts. And while it may be surprising to some, prosecutors in juvenile court have led many of these efforts.

As gatekeepers to the juvenile justice system, prosecutors are responsible for key charging decisions and leadership in community prevention efforts. In this regard, the role and responsibilities of the juvenile prosecutor extend well beyond the courtroom. In fact, in cases involving young people, much of the prosecutor’s work can and should be done outside the courtroom. Working collaboratively with other youth-serving agencies in their communities allows prosecutors to play a leadership role in these efforts.

Recognizing the critical role that prosecutors play in juvenile court, the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention funded the creation of a National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center (NJJPC). The center is working to ensure that those on the front lines are well trained and experienced in the most up-to-date advances in the field.

An essential component of our center is the Juvenile Prosecutor Leadership Network (JPLN). The JPLN is comprised of veteran prosecutors from across the country working to reform the juvenile justice system to ensure it is both fair and effective. They are currently working with NJJPC to create and implement a new training curriculum that will reflect the need for prosecutors to recreate their role as leaders, not only in the courtroom, but also in their communities.

Drawing upon more than 350 years of prosecution experience, the JPLN is comprised of juvenile court prosecutors who are not only experts in the law, but are also community leaders able to bring about substantive change in their jurisdictions. Collectively, they are on the forefront of identifying emerging and innovative policies and practices. They are targeting issues that are impacting their communities, such as opioid use, alternatives to formal incarceration, reducing racial disparities and human trafficking. Many of the programs have achieved great success and have helped reduce offending and improve community safety.

With regard to the issue of addressing racial disparities within the juvenile justice system, JPLN member George Mosee is at the forefront of this work. Currently the first assistant district attorney in Philadelphia and the former division chief of the Juvenile Division, George has spent years involved with DMC efforts (disproportionate minority contact) throughout Pennsylvania and the country. He is a member of the Philadelphia Working Group, a collaborative and multidisciplinary group of stakeholders who have brought attention to the issue and designed concrete solutions to address the problem of racial disparities.

One of the projects spearheaded by the working group is minority youth-law enforcement forums that bring the police and youth together to talk frankly and openly about the problems on the street and the troubled relationships between them. By opening a dialogue between youth and law enforcement, the group hopes to reduce the number of volatile interactions between youth and officers on the street, to decrease arrests of minority youth and to diminish the chance of injuries to officer and youth on the street.

The forums provide an opportunity for both youth and law enforcement to be heard and to consider each other’s views without endorsing either side as completely right or wrong.  Discussions between the young people and officers who have participated on the panels have often become quite heated. For example, when asked by a youth why police beat kids who run, an officer replied, “that’s the running tax.”

These frank exchanges led to more in-depth discussions about balancing the need for police to investigate crime safely with the desires of young people to live in their community without being harassed. At the end of each forum, both officers and youth have said they developed a new understanding of each other. Of greater importance, both law enforcement and youth have indicated that they might react differently to situations on the street as a result of the forums.

As a result of these discussions between youth and law enforcement, the working group created a training program for law enforcement officers relating to youth development and culture. This one-day training for police academy cadets, experienced law enforcement officers and youth has been utilized by the Philadelphia Police Department in its training academy since 2009 and more than 3,500 Philadelphia recruits have been trained in the model. The curriculum has also been replicated in five counties in Pennsylvania (Lancaster, Montgomery, Lehigh, Luzerne and Allegheny) and is in the process of being replicated in additional jurisdictions.

The curriculum has also been replicated in three jurisdictions in Connecticut, which focus their efforts on law enforcement and youth returning home from delinquent placement. Information about the Pennsylvania DMC Youth/Law Enforcement Curriculum along with a video about the forums are available at www.padmc.org.

This is just one example of the innovative work the JPLN members are involved with. Over the next few months, we will be highlighting other programs JPLN members are spearheading. Based on the work of these members and other countless juvenile court prosecutors across the country, it is clear that juvenile prosecutors play a pivotal role in the process and it’s time to recognize the work being done on the front lines every day.

Susan Broderick is project director of Georgetown University’s National Juvenile Justice Prosecution Center.

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