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A Montgomery County program that keeps young offenders out of jail marks 20 years with a new director and expanded services

The Youth Aid Panel program allows juvenile offenders the chance to avoid prosecution or jail time by working with volunteers from their own communities.

Angela Bell was sworn in as the director of the Montgomery County Youth Aid Panel program in August. The program turns 20 this year, and has seen more than 10,000 juvenile offenders avoid jail by completing  community service and behavioral health and anger management programs.
Angela Bell was sworn in as the director of the Montgomery County Youth Aid Panel program in August. The program turns 20 this year, and has seen more than 10,000 juvenile offenders avoid jail by completing community service and behavioral health and anger management programs.Read moreJESSICA GRIFFIN / Staff Photographer

When a teen crosses paths with a cop in Abington, chances are he or she will soon be hearing from Jan Harris.

Shoplifting, vandalism, minor drug possession — as the director of youth programs for the Montgomery County township’s police department, she’s handled those cases and more. In her experience, they stem from “stupid decisions” by kids who got caught. The same decisions that teenagers have been making for generations.

But Abington, like 32 other police departments in the county, gives nonviolent juvenile offenders an option. If they consent to completing the Youth Aid Panel program, they can avoid prosecution by performing community service, writing letters, and taking anger management classes that allow them to look inward and understand why what they did was wrong.

Unlike other diversion programs, the panels are staffed by volunteers from the community. Teachers, accountants, and office workers who spend their off hours developing programs tailored for these teens.

The program turns 20 this year, marking the occasion with a new countywide coordinator and a collaboration with Philadelphia. And those who have been involved for years say it’s a quiet success, and an option most are unaware of until it’s handed to them.

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“Court is a negative, and I just feel that it’s better to invest in the youth in a positive way,” said Harris, whose panels are some of the busiest in the county. “If it takes a village, we’re going to raise kids in the community and teach them.“

More than 10,000 teenagers have circulated through Montgomery County’s Youth Aid Panel program since its inception in 2000, according to Montgomery County District Attorney Kevin Steele. Last year, 489 participated, with 94% completing it and avoiding a criminal record.

For many participants, the program becomes a crash course in empathy. They have frank conversations about why what they did was wrong, sometimes reinforced by volunteer work or restitution payments to reverse the damage they’ve caused, Steele said.

“There’s a lot of science and work that’s been done out there on the lack of brain development,” the district attorney said. “So you look at that and see an avenue here, a diversionary way to try to not put them into the system, try not to create a record.

“And one of the reasons why this is so effective is that you have these community members, these panelists, who are familiar with their communities,” he added. “By going in front of your friend’s mother for something like this, it may be much more effective than going before a judge out at the youth court, because you have attachments to the community.”

The program goes beyond the youth it helps. In Montgomery County, case management services are available for the teens’ families, connecting them with benefits they otherwise wouldn’t have access to. Proponents say it is a holistic approach: Food insecurity, mental health issues, and other problems are often underlying factors that led the teens to their arrests in the first place.

Angela Bell, an assistant district attorney in Steele’s office, has been studying diversionary programs like these for years. In August, she was sworn in as the new coordinator for the Youth Aid Panel, and has spent the last few weeks identifying ways to make it even better.

“We have to look at it like an investment in our community and our future,” Bell said. “When we keep kids out of the criminal justice system, we keep them in school.”

Currently, kids between 10 and 17 are eligible for inclusion in the Youth Aid Panels. As a rule, teens accused of major violent crimes are excluded from the program, but recently, more latitude has been given to those with prior misdemeanors on their records, or who have gone through the program once before.

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“The way I would describe it is as more of the global outcome that we can all get, by taking a little bit of time while they’re young to point them back in the right direction if they make a mistake and make sure they stay on a productive path,” Bell said.

In the last year, Steele’s office started collaborating with its counterparts in Philadelphia, after noticing an increasing number of teens from the city arrested for shoplifting and petty crimes around the King of Prussia Mall.

Thanks to a grant from the state Commission on Crime and Delinquency, Montgomery County’s Youth Aid Panel has been able to accept these Philly teens, who are then referred to services near their own neighborhoods.

Jordan King, the director of juvenile diversion programming for the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office, said the cross-county partnership was a natural fit: The city has been operating its own Youth Aid Panels since the ’80s. Philadelphia’s are also spread out geographically, with one in each of the city’s police districts.

“Instead of stigmatizing the kid for doing what they’ve done in the past, our program works to stigmatize the act, to make sure they don’t repeat their actions,” King said. “And we move them toward support to keep them in that frame of mind as they develop.”

Success stories do trickle back to the group, according to Faith Harris, the program manager for juvenile diversion in the district attorney’s office. They’ve heard from college graduates who write thankful letters, or Army recruits who credit the program with stopping them from moving on to more serious crime.

“There are hundreds of individuals who are right now living and breathing working among us, and you would never know they made a mistake in life and never know that they went through the Youth Aid Panel,” Harris said. “That’s the point of this program.”

In Montgomery Township, a small municipality near Lansdale, Mary Bauer has seen the truth of this firsthand since she joined the local Youth Aid Panel in 1994.

The types of crimes have changed during her tenure — there’s a new, troubling trend of sexual-based offenses, mostly unsolicited sharing of nude pictures, among the young people she deals with, something that worries her as a mother of two daughters.

But the job has remained the same. And as she continues her work with teens, she says she’s reminded of its importance.

“They’ll come in with the attitude of ’it’s not a big deal,’ and we’ll turn it around,” Bauer said. “A lot of it is about respecting themselves, and respecting other people, putting it in terms of ’What if someone did this to your sister?’ It resonates with them, and they learn from it.

“Imagine how full our jails would be,” she added, “if everyone was in there for one dumb mistake.”