Virginia Suburb Shows That Diversion, Victim-centered Agreements Work

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diversion: Melancholy teens sit against wall.

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Over the last several years, the Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court (JDRDC) of Fairfax County, Va., has been working on transformative efforts around juvenile justice in an effort to keep low-risk youth from entering the system and address disparities for youth of color. One large area targeted by these efforts was the diversion programming and Juvenile Intake Office.

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In Virginia, intake officers are decision-makers. It is their responsibility to review charges from petitioners for probable cause and make decisions regarding eligibility for diversion or appropriateness for court. In addition, intake officers work closely with police when determining probable cause and recommending diversion.

diversion: Courtney Porter (headshot), director of research and development for Fairfax County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court, woman with light brown hair, glasses.

Courtney Porter

In line with other juvenile justice transformation efforts, JDRDC partnered with other county agencies and community service providers to redesign and expand an existing community restorative justice program into the Alternative Accountability Program (AAP). In addition, JDRDC overhauled the juvenile intake process, incorporating evidence-based assessments as part of the diversion process.

The AAP is a newly developed, early diversion option for youth involved in the juvenile justice system in Fairfax County. The program uses a victim-centered response to juvenile offenses and provides eligible youth an opportunity to acknowledge their involvement in incidents and explore ways to repair the harm. Victims drive the process, participating in conferences with resolutions in terms that meet the victim’s needs.

The development of AAP is a direct result of collaboration among various county agencies and community partners, including JDRDC’s Court Services Unit (CSU), the Fairfax County Police Department, the Fairfax County Public Schools, Neighborhood and Community Services and Northern Virginia Mediation Services. Operating under a memorandum of understanding, representatives from these agencies meet quarterly to support the implementation and sustainability of AAP.

In the most recent annual data (from fiscal year 2018, which runs July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018), the AAP served 447 youth offenders (40% youth of color and 60% white youth) through 297 conferences. More than 900 citizens (victims, supporters, etc.) were involved in the process throughout the year.

Agreements show solid results

Youth charged with first-time offenses ranging from possession of marijuana to larceny to assault are eligible for the program. The program has promising outcomes, with 99.7% of conferences reaching agreement. Of those youths reaching agreements, 99% were compliant with the agreement terms, and the other 1% were still working on their agreement requirements.

Agreements between offenders and victims included behavioral agreements, apology letters, financial restitution and community service. All agreements include input from both the victim and the offender, as the goal is to repair harm but also not apply undue pressure on the offender and their families (e.g. unrealistic amounts of restitution or community service hours). Long-term outcomes for the AAP are promising as well, with only 12% of youth receiving new charges within 12 months of completing the program.

To complement and expand current diversion efforts within Fairfax County, the Court Services Unit also redesigned the juvenile intake process. An oversight workgroup reviewed existing intake processes for diversion and created a six-part diversion matrix that incorporated youths’ risk and needs based on screening and assessment results.

The process introduced the Youth Assessment Screening Instrument (YASI) Pre-Screen and the Global Assessment of Individual Needs-Short Screen (GAIN-SS) as the screening and assessment instruments. All juvenile intake officers were trained in the use of both. These changes enabled CSU staff to use empirical tools to determine the most appropriate levels of supervision and services for youth eligible for diversion.

The CSU’s Research and Development Unit helped evaluate the effectiveness of the new diversion program. Staff collected, analyzed and presented data routinely during the pilot phase of the project, enabling unit and program managers to adjust procedures throughout the pilot period. Data showed that only 34% of black youth were eligible for diversion, compared to 50% of white youth. A more in-depth analysis revealed that a large portion of youth of color were ineligible for diversion due to some form of prior or current court involvement and/or excessive restitution.

To address the disproportionality indicated by the pilot data and increase diversion opportunities for youth of color, the oversight team (with support from senior administration) worked to change the diversion eligibility criteria offered by the CSU. More specifically, without changing the risk factor for youths’ recidivism and public safety, the team increased the maximum number of charges allowed for diversion from three to five, and removed restitution as a factor for diversion eligibility.

The final diversion process involves the intake officer completing an intake screen to determine eligibility followed by a face-to-face meeting between the youth, their family and the intake officer for those eligible. During that meeting, the intake officer completes both the YASI and the GAIN-SS using the results and the diversion matrix to determine the appropriate outcome. Possible diversion outcomes include an additional one-on-one meeting with a probation officer to review our core values curriculum, a diversion hearing or in cases of high-risk youth, monitored diversion. Other sanctions, similar to those available with the AAP, may also be assigned.

During fiscal year 2018, the CSU’s diversion program served 791 youth eligible for diversion, with 83% moving forward in the diversion process. Some youth refuse participation within the diversion process, instead choosing to move forward with the court process. Sixty-five percent of youth eligible for diversion are youth of color, with the most common offenses consisting of possession of marijuana, larceny and assault.

Outcomes regarding risk level identify 81% of youth as low risk to reoffend, followed by 18% as moderate risk and 3% as high risk to reoffend. Recidivism data is available for youth who completed diversion during fiscal year 2017 (July 1, 2016 to June 30, 2017). Only 12% of low-risk youth and 39% of moderate-risk youth had a new charge within 12 months of completing diversion. The one high-risk youth had a 0 percent recidivism rate within 12 months of completing diversion.

Fairfax County is committed and continues efforts to decrease racial and ethnic disproportionality and to expand diversion options for youth in Fairfax County and nearby jurisdictions by including all police stations in the AAP, developing new diversion programs for youth and reviewing policies and practices around diversion eligibility. The team has also been working diligently to change state and county legislation in order to improve interagency collaboration and data-sharing ability.

Courtney Porter is the director of research and development for Fairfax County’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations District Court. She received her Ph.D. in criminology, law & society from George Mason University.

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