The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office launched a new unit Monday dedicated to reviewing some nonviolent cases involving young adults to decide whether those defendants should be connected with social services, such as jobs programs or mentorship opportunities, instead of being convicted and sentenced to jail or probation.
DA Larry Krasner said the unit was designed to reflect research showing that young people — even those over age 18 — are more impulsive than adults as they continue maturing, and also show greater prospects for reform. The U.S. Supreme Court has cited such research in recent years while scaling back the types of sentences courts can legally impose on juvenile defendants.
The unit will consider some nonviolent cases, such as theft or drug offenses, committed by people ages 18 to 25 to determine whether those who committed the crimes might be better served by rehabilitative programming outside the traditional realm of the criminal justice system, Krasner and other officials said at a news conference.
The unit will not consider cases involving guns, accusations of family or sexual violence, or other serious felonies, officials said.
If the unit deems a case worthy of selection, its prosecutors will discuss potential resolutions, including restitution, with any victims; work with defense lawyers to seek the right path for the defendant; and ultimately seek to connect that person with services such as job training, counseling, or literacy programs as part of the case’s disposition.
Diversionary programs are not new, in Philadelphia or nationally. But Sangeeta Prasad, a lawyer who helped develop the initiative for the DA’s Office, said the unit’s approach differs from existing diversion efforts because, among other things, it will not impose the same monitoring standards on defendants whose cases are selected, and it will seek to connect defendants with community-based organizations that meet their needs.
In some instances, Prasad said, prosecutors will seek to withdraw charges against defendants once they’re set up with an organization whose programs are generally shorter and offer more incentives to participate than most traditional forms of diversion or supervision.
Lael Chester, director of the emerging adult justice project at Columbia University’s Justice Lab, said the use of such community groups could be especially important — allowing young people to make connections that can last well beyond any official term of supervision imposed under more traditional programs.
“Those connections don’t end when the case ends,” she said.
Prasad said the unit has three full-time staff members, and would likely screen around 500 cases per month for review. Some staffers in the office had been doing similar work for months, she said, but a dedicated unit was not in place until now.
Keisha Hudson, head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, spoke at the news conference and called the effort an “incredible initiative.”
Gabriel Roberts, spokesperson for the First Judicial District — which was not represented at Monday’s announcement — said the courts “have, for many years, successfully utilized diversion programs,” offering treatment and support from social workers, community advocates, and others. He said court officials “look forward to hearing more about this important first step for the District Attorney’s Office to bolster an already existing slate of programming.”
Krasner, who was reelected last year on a pledge to continue emphasizing criminal justice reform over punishment, highlighted a similar program last summer for youth offenders in which some people between the ages of 12 and 17 can have their charges dropped after working with caseworkers and meeting with victims, among other conditions.
He said Monday that although prosecutors intended to be selective about which cases the new unit will handle: “This is the kind of thing that, if it is successful, could affect a significant number of cases in one of the biggest cities in America.”