The 10-year-old with a ponytail had been arrested and kicked out of school for carrying a razor in her pencil case. Instead of standing before a judge in Philadelphia’s Family Court, the fourth grader and her mother appeared before nine members of her own West Philadelphia community, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports. They were adult volunteers entrusted with getting to the bottom of the incident and devising an appropriate punishment.
Youth Aid Panels provide an alternative to court for first-time, non-violent juvenile offenders. The District Attorney’s Office runs the program and decides who gets a second chance: If they successfully complete the program, their record is wiped clean. Their names are kept confidential. If they fail to live up to their agreement, or get into more trouble, they go before a judge. “These panels are really community justice at its best,” said Asssistant District Attorney Mike Cleary. “The focus of the panel is the juvenile, but it’s in balance with the community’s concerns and the victims’ concerns. In a sense, what we’re doing is empowering the community.”
The city’s 28 Youth Aid Panels are not responsible for determining a child’s guilt or innocence. They do not conduct trials. To go before a Youth Aid Panel, a juvenile must admit involvement in the crime, then repeat the admission during the review. It is not always the easiest thing to do in front of a parent and a panel of inquiring adults.
This year, the panels will hear more than 1,000 cases. The program, which works with youths for about four months, annually diverts about 10 percent of Family Court’s caseload. The cost is minimal: one assistant district attorney and one law clerk are assigned to the program.
In the case of the 10-year-old girl, she was required by a panel to write a story about the razor incident but to give the story a different ending, focusing on what she could have done differently and two things she learned from the experience.
The panels have a strong success rate. Nine out of 10 juveniles live up to their Youth Aid Panel “contract” requirements. And 78 percent of those who complete the mentoring period are not arrested a second time. District Attorney Lynne M. Abraham said: “The success rate tells me that the Youth Aid Panels are successful for the offenders, as well as the victims and the community. If we can divert a kid from a life of crime, we want to do that.”