Years before he became a district attorney, Suffolk District Attorney Dan Conley spent just over a year prosecuting juveniles. Some of that experience has stayed with him.
“A lot of kids are scared to death when they walk in and that’s enough punishment,” Conley said last week. “You never see them again.” And then there are those whose entanglement with the criminal justice system is only beginning.
With that risk in mind, Conley has just launched an effort to try to steer some juveniles who come into court toward better choices. The intent of the Juvenile Alternative Resolution program is to encourage medium-level youthful offenders to stop causing trouble, while still holding them accountable for their actions.
Prosecutors can exercise discretion in deciding how to deal with juveniles charged with crimes. But under the new program, juveniles who qualify would avoid arraignment altogether. Instead they would be offered counseling and other services, while also being required to make amends to their victims. Their incentive? Avoiding a juvenile record, and the stigma that can come with it.
Conley said those who are charged with serious violent offenses, such as sexual assault, would not be considered. But he believes many juveniles whose brushes with the law are less serious, but significant, can still be turned around with enough support.
The program grew out of lengthy discussions between Conley’s office and the community about better ways to deal with young offenders. He also conferred with advocates and scholars. It comes at a time of growing alarm about mass incarceration, and awareness that efforts at rehabilitation often start too late to be effective.
“This is taking a leap of faith, or a big step forward in juvenile diversion, we think,” Conley said. “It might be the most ambitious diversion program out there.”
The program might once have been considered an unlikely diversion for Conley himself, who began in office forging a reputation for being tougher on crime than his predecessors. But he said he has come to believe that many juvenile offenders would benefit much more from counseling and other services than from more punishment.
A key goal is to help kids avoid getting criminal records at all. Even though juvenile records are sealed, they are not without effect. Judges see them, school officials are often aware of them, and a reputation for being a bad actor begins to take hold.
One of the key components is “restorative justice”— an approach to rehabilitation that emphasizes direct contact, when agreed upon, between offenders and their victims. It brings them face-to-face with the intention of forcing offenders to confront the harm they have caused, while allowing victims to verbalize their pain. Advocates of restorative justice insist that the experience can be powerful for all concerned.
Daria Lyman, director of the Restorative Justice program at the University of Massachusetts Boston, approached Conley’s staff about four years ago to propose a radically different approach to dealing with juveniles. Her belief is that many young offenders do not grasp the full consequences of their behavior, and that needs to change.
“Restorative justice changes behavior,” Lyman said. “The humanization of the victim to the offender is what really keeps them from reoffending.”
Initially, the program will have the capacity to serve about 50 juveniles at a time. But Conley and others say they hope its capacity will expand, and quickly, if it proves effective in reducing repeat offenses. UMass-Boston will be tracking the outcomes of cases to gauge whether the program is a success.
It’s a juvenile crime program, but Conley said its ultimate mission is much broader than that.
“Right now it’s going to benefit juveniles, but it won’t be too long before they become adults,” he said. “My hope is that they will benefit so much that we never see them in the adult criminal system.”Adrian Walker is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @Adrian_Walker.