The Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office on Monday launched a new unit dedicated to reviewing certain nonviolent cases involving young adults to decide whether those defendants should be connected to social services, such as employment programs or mentoring opportunities, instead of being convicted and sentenced to prison or probation.
DA Larry Krasner said the unit was designed to reflect research showing that young people – even those over the age of 18 – are more brash than adults as they continue to mature, and also show greater prospects for reform. The U.S. Supreme Court has cited such research in recent years while narrowing the types of sentences courts can legally impose on juvenile defendants.
The unit will examine certain non-violent cases, such as robberies or drug offenses, committed by people between the ages of 18 and 25 to determine if those who committed the crimes could be better served by rehabilitation programs. outside the traditional realm of the criminal justice system, Krasner and others said officials at a news conference.
The unit will not review cases involving firearms, domestic or sexual violence charges or other serious crimes, officials said.
If the unit deems a case worthy of selection, its prosecutors will discuss potential resolutions, including restitution, with all victims; work with defense attorneys to seek the right path for the accused; and ultimately seek to connect that person with services such as job training, counseling or literacy programs as part of the decision of the case.
Diversion programs are not new, in Philadelphia or nationally. But Sangeeta Prasad, a lawyer who helped develop the prosecutor’s office initiative, said the unit’s approach differs from existing diversion efforts because, among other things, it won’t impose the same standards of oversight. defendants whose cases are selected, and will seek to connect defendants with community organizations that meet their needs.
In some cases, Prasad said, prosecutors will seek to drop charges against defendants once they are set up with an organization, whose programs she says are also 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 using such community groups could be particularly important — allowing young people to make connections that can last well into the future. beyond any period of formal supervision imposed under more traditional programs.
“These ties don’t end when the case ends,” she said.
Prasad said the unit had three full-time staff members and would likely review around 500 cases a month for review. Some staff in the office had been doing similar work for months, she said, but no dedicated unit had been in place until now.
Keisha Hudson, head of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, spoke at the press conference and called the effort an “incredible initiative.”
Gabriel Roberts, spokesman for the First Judicial District – who was not pictured in Monday’s announcement – said the courts “have, for many years, successfully used diversion programs”, offering treatment and support from social workers, community advocates and others. He said court officials “look forward to learning more about this important first step for the district attorney’s office to bolster an already existing slate of programs.”
Krasner, who won re-election last year on a pledge to continue to focus on criminal justice reform rather than punishment, highlighted a similar program last summer for young offenders, in which some people between the ages of 12 and 17 may have their charges dropped after working with social workers and meeting with victims, among other conditions.
He said on Monday that while prosecutors intend to be selective about which cases the new unit will take on: “It’s the kind of thing that, if successful, could affect a significant number of cases in the ‘one of the greatest cities in America.’