SPRINGFIELD — When Northampton District Judge Kevin Maltby looked down at Antonio, a 23-year-old Springfield resident facing felony charges, it was with a smile.
“I heard you went camping?” Maltby asked in the courtroom earlier this month about the young man’s recent vacation. (Antonio’s last name and details about his case are omitted to protect his privacy.)
“Yeah,” Antonio answered shyly, fiddling with the cuffs of his blue-and-white-checked button-down shirt. Despite his football player’s build towering over the microphone, Antonio’s voice was gentle and soft. “Me and my girlfriend built a 10-person tent.”
In response to Maltby’s incredulous look, Antonio assured him that “it’s easy. It comes with instructions, … and I’m pretty good at what I did.”
The court collectively chuckled, nearly drowning out Antonio’s final comment: “I had fun.”
Maltby, however, was all ears.
“I’m glad you enjoyed yourself,” he said.
Such lighthearted exchanges between judge and defendant are rare in most courts, but not in EACH: Hampden County’s Emerging Adult Court of Hope, devised by District Attorney Anthony Gulluni in partnership with Springfield District Court and the Massachusetts-based youth justice nonprofit Roca. According to Gulluni, the diversion court is one of only a few nationwide to focus on high-risk young adults, typically aged 18 to 25.
Although the seed for EACH was planted more than four years ago, the court convened with its first participant in March 2020, only to be disrupted by the pandemic a few weeks later. Progress slowed as the court attempted to meet over Zoom, cobbling together virtual rehabilitation services for their single participant. Nevertheless, the program slowly expanded over the past year. Today EACH has six participants, all men, though Gulluni hopes to expand the program post-pandemic to include up to 25 men and women.
Emerging adult diversion programs are based on neuroscience research indicating that the human brain is not fully developed until a person’s mid-twenties, said Marian Ryan, district attorney for Middlesex County, which recently expanded its juvenile diversion services to young adults up to age 26.
“Specifically the part of the brain that responds to decision-making and peer pressure is in formation up until some people are 26,” Ryan said June 11 in a phone interview.
This data has been used for years by insurance companies but was only adopted into the criminal justice system in the past decade, said Judge Bruce Chan, who presides over one of the country’s first young adult courts in San Francisco, in a phone interview.
Chan said that a visit to Roca in Massachusetts more than a decade ago inspired the individualized approach he brings to his courtroom, which in turn became a model for EACH.
“Specialty courts have shown that the judge having relationships with the participants really makes them better people,” said Judge Maureen Walsh in a phone interview. Walsh presided over EACH since its beginning, until she was appointed to the Massachusetts Appeals Court last month.
Lael Chester, director of the Emerging Adult Justice Project, said the effects of lumping this demographic in with older adults are “disastrous.”
Young adults are overrepresented in the justice system: They have the worst recidivism rates, and they have by far the worst racial disparities, Chester said over the phone.
“We know from research that the vast majority of people will age out of crime by 25,” she added, but “the collateral consequences of a conviction are lifelong.”
According to Gulluni, the participants have been charged with a variety of crimes, ranging from possession of a firearm and carjacking to home invasion and assault, and are facing anywhere from 18 months to 20 years in prison. In most cases, he added, these young people have records that precede their current offense.
“That cycle, we see it all the time, and we wanted to disrupt it,” he said.
Before joining the program, EACH participants must plead guilty to their charges. If they fail to complete the requirements, their cases return to the adult criminal justice system, where they will once again face the risk of incarceration. If they succeed, however, the district attorney and judge will work together to ensure that their records are cleared not only of the most recent charges, but of all prior convictions.
“We know the barrier that a felony conviction serves for educational opportunities, work opportunities, government assistance, whatever it might be,” said Gulluni, “so when our young people get through the program, we are going to work with the court to expunge that person’s record.
“I don’t think we could earnestly say that we want to set them up on real career paths and then say, ‘Okay, here you go. You’re done, but you got a felony record.’ The two things are just not compatible,” he said.
EACH is designed to be completed in 18 to 24 months, broken into four phases. All current participants are in one of the first two phases, which focus on building relationships with program coordinators and developing dreams and career goals that will be used to craft their Individual Service Plan during phase three.
“The only way you can change someone’s behavior is by building the core foundation of a relationship: the trust,” said Christine Judd, director of Roca Springfield and Holyoke.
Particularly for people whose relationships with judges and lawyers are anything but amicable, Judd said, it takes time to see criminal justice workers as a solution to embrace, not a problem to be avoided.
Despite being skeptical of the staff at first, Antonio said in an interview after his court appearance, hearing praise from the judge in the courtroom is the most rewarding part.
“Makes you feel like you’re doing something good,” he said.
Although the goals are the same for all participants, the requirements and expectations are tailored to the individual. Weekly responsibilities can include substance abuse counseling, therapy, career training, and cognitive behavioral theory workshops focused on solidifying healthy communication and coping mechanisms.
The program implements a tough love approach, with praise for good behavior and consequences for not following the rules. Participants are employed and paid by Roca in order to gain work experience. They are given jobs such as cleaning the building, painting, and landscaping. To simulate a real workplace, Roca staff will cite for tardiness, or grant promotions and raises for diligent work. Participants can be fired for poor workmanship and re-hired, helping them to develop a work ethic.
Each week concludes on Thursday at the courthouse, starting with a 90-minute pre-session in which probation officers and Roca staff brief the judge and district attorney about each participant before he arrives. After that, participants are called before the judge to discuss their victories and struggles, and often receive some advice.
“In basketball, the coach would tell you when you take a shot, to follow your shot, because even if you miss, you get to re-up and take the shot again.” Maltby said to Antonio, who had made it 27 days with only three write-ups for lateness. “Follow your shot here, so we can get you to that 30.”
As the science behind emerging adult diversion becomes more widely known, Ryan said, she is optimistic that more diversion efforts — from pretrial services to full-fledged courts — will begin to flourish.
“We are certainly growing our program at a very rapid pace, and I hope that will be true across the country,” she said. “And it is certainly better for offenders when early on, we can address what brings them to the criminal justice system … and get them on a better path.”
Antonio said he is grateful for the experience he has gained through the program.
He has his sights set on a career as a tractor-trailer driver, he said, with hopes to travel cross-country before eventually settling down in Springfield to start a family.
“Maybe get a house,” he said, “just do regular people things.”
“It took me until now to be like, ‘Okay, it’s time to stop playing around,’” he said. “So I’d tell people to take as much advantage as you can out of this program, ‘cause they’re here to help.”
Ivy Scott can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @itsivyscott.