Calling it one of his “proudest achievements,” Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner announced a new program Monday to divert youth offenders from the criminal justice system, require them to meet with their victims, and give them an opportunity to choose a better path forward.
The program, called Healing Futures, mirrors similar restorative justice efforts underway in roughly 15 other U.S. cities and counties, as progressive prosecutors and others rethink the impact of the system.
“It is accountability, but it is accountability that has more imagination than simply to punish,” Krasner said during his weekly gun violence news conference in West Philadelphia. “And it’s a kind of accountability that studies have shown not only reduces future criminal conduct, but is more satisfactory to victims of crime than what we have been doing traditionally.”
Krasner was joined at the Cookman Beloved Community Baptist Church by clergy, community activists, and two members of City Council, all whom heralded restorative justice as a reform sorely needed in a city where 40,000 crimes are prosecuted a year, with about 2,400 of them committed by juveniles.
“We must keep young people out of the system. Period,“ said City Councilmember Helen Gym, who said serving on Gov. Tom Wolf’s juvenile justice reform task force led her to believe the juvenile justice system is broken.
Under the program, which began in June as a pilot with 25 minors, offenders between the ages of 12 and 17 who have been arrested for crimes such as assault, robbery, burglary, and high-level theft will be eligible. After accepting responsibility for their offenses, they will be paired with caseworkers from the nonprofit Youth Art & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP), officials said. When they complete the program — including meeting with their victims — the charges will be dropped.
“This process brings together each of these parties to facilitate face-to-face dialogues to ensure that all parties reach consensus about what steps need to be taken to ensure that the program meets the need of the person who was harmed, while also supporting the positive development of the young person,” said Assistant District Attorney Jordan King, director of the office’s Juvenile Diversion Unit. He said the cases chosen would be the type “that would traditionally end in placement or periods of extended probation.”
Youth charged with crimes involving firearms, sex offenses, domestic-partner violence, and direct-file violent crimes are not eligible.
“There is a jail cell waiting for people who paralyze other people,” Krasner said. But in some less serious cases, he said, accountability should not “permanently mark you as someone who cannot own a home, and cannot be a provider and cannot go to school and cannot get a loan.”
The program is funded in part from an anonymous donation, as well a grant, officials said. It mirrors similar initiatives underway in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Durham, N.C. , Nashville, Tenn., and Oakland, Krasner said. One 2017 study says the programs are reducing crime rates among minors.
“Efforts like this are an important tool in our toolbox to reduce our city’s over reliance on incarceration,” City Councilmember Jamie Gauthier said.