By Lyna Bentahar
Special to The Sentinel
UPPER MARLBORO – Prince George’s County State’s Attorney Aisha Braveboy announced on July 31 a juvenile justice reform plan to keep young offenders out of prison.
The juvenile reform plan centers on the concept of diversion, which stops young offenders from being charged for a crime in exchange for accepting help for mental illness, drug abuse, homelessness or other factors that might have led offenders to crime or violence.
The new approach frames crime by young offenders as a public health issue and intends to institute restorative justice as a strategy to tackle it.
The plan will do as much to protect the futures of young offenders as it keeps the community safe as a whole, according to Braveboy, viewing them as inherently linked.
“Mind you we must, and we will hold our young people accountable for their actions,” said Braveboy. “But we will do so in a way that limits their exposure to the criminal justice system and the trauma and collateral consequences of being a part of the system.”
Under the new plan, the state’s attorney’s office will partner with the Prince George’s Police Department (PGPD), the public school system, universities and nonprofit groups to keep kids out of the school-to-prison pipeline.
It has no funding as organizations have offered their services for free as an investment into the county and communities. Offenders and their families also do not have to seek out the service themselves. Police departments and schools will bring the state’s attorney’s youth justice unit to students that they see need diversion.
“Children are children. They make mistakes,” said Phil Lee, executive director of the Community Public Awareness Council which is partnering with the state’s attorney’s office. “But that mistake shouldn’t stick with them for the rest of their life.”
Groups like the Community Public Awareness Council and the Center for Conflict Resolution have used diversion tactics before this program. This would be the first program to be a part of the state’s attorney’s office.
“Diversion is not new,” said Lee. “It works.”
The program is meant to build positive relationships in the community in all its capacities.
For the Center for Conflict Resolution’s Program Director Dana Coles, the diversion program gives school security guards, which for the most part have a law enforcement background, an opportunity to see the underlying causes as to what causes students to break the law.
For students, Coles says the diversion program is an opportunity for offenders and victims to take control of their fate in the system. Restorative justice would allow the state’s attorney’s office and families to work alongside each other to find out what needs to happen for victims to receive justice and to find out what offenders need to do not to fall back onto crime.
“We don’t really listen to youth,” said Coles. “Youth want to be heard. They’re ready to take responsibility for their actions. They want direction. In some instances, they go out of their way to try and make a situation right, but because they don’t have the tools, they just dig themselves deeper into a hole.”
Coles added, “It’s really about strengthening the community.”
A University of Maryland survey found that between 2015 and 2016, 21% of school-based arrests in Maryland were in Prince George’s County and 66% of those total arrests were African American students.
Braveboy aims for her program to soon make the county “the gold standard in the state and in the country for youth justice reform.”
“We will not continue to do the same things expecting a different outcome,” said Lee. “Today, we begin to do something new and improved, and we look forward to change.”
The state’s attorney’s office would see success with their program once they saw a reduction of juvenile incarceration in the county, especially in-school arrests. The Community Public Awareness Council saw differently.
“The state’s attorney talked about stopping, slowing down the schoolyard-to-prison yard pipeline. My intention, working with this group, is to destroy it,” said Lee.