Court diversion program offers young offenders a second chance

The Dukes County courthouse in Edgartown. — File photo by Ralph Stewart

Several months ago, the office of Cape and Island District Attorney Michael O’Keefe expanded a Barnstable Court program for young offenders to include courts on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket. Called the youthful court diversion program, it provides certain first-time offenders between the ages of 17 and 21 with an opportunity to avoid the court process and a criminal record.

Participation in the program stops the clock on a court date for six months. The case remains open during that time, but is not listed in the public records and won’t show up on a published court report, such as those published in community newspapers.

Kathy Quatromoni, the director of community programs in District Attorney Michael O’Keefe’s office, has run a court diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders between the ages of 7 and 17 since it began in 2000.

The youthful diversion program is an offshoot of the juvenile diversion program. Both now operate in the Barnstable, Dukes, and Nantucket county courts.

“We realized as we went along that 17- to 21-year-olds were not getting the benefits of the juvenile diversion program,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “So we instituted the youthful part on the mainland in 2005. As of July 1, we started the youthful program on Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket.”

Ms. Quatromoni said District Attorney O’Keefe supports the diversion program. “He was a champion of it in the beginning, and he still is,” she said in a recent telephone conversation. “We don’t want these kids in court, if we can divert them.”

The juvenile and youthful court diversion programs are voluntary, and their components include accountability, community service, education programs, and counseling. Although the programs are basically the same, the terms “juvenile” and “youthful” are used to differentiate age, Ms. Quatromoni explained. Offenders age 17 and older go to district court, rather than juvenile court. Those 18 and older do not have to be accompanied by their parents.

Substance, depression screening a plus

The expansion of the youthful diversion program to include Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket was funded through a grant of approximately $63,000 from the Massachusetts Executive Office of Public Safety.

“We’re not licensed social workers,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “So one of the things we introduced into the program, and the reason we were able to get the grant, was screening all youth for substance use, using a screen developed by Children’s Hospital in Boston, and we’re also screening for depression using a Dept. of Public Health screen.”

Since the screening component began on July 1, Ms. Quatromoni said 5 of 101 of new cases on the Cape and Islands were directed for assessment of possible issues of depression and substance use, which would not have been done previously.

“So we’re trying to be as comprehensive as we can, in order to efficiently direct youth to the services needed, because the future is our young people,” she added. “The bottom line is, we know treatment works, and we know it’s not as expensive. Taking cases out of the regular court process saves all of us money, so we’re trying to do an effective job of that.”

Eligible cases

The juvenile diversion program is based on an innovative national model and offers an alternative to the court process for offenses such as shoplifting, minor in possession of alcohol, possession of marijuana, trespassing and property damage.

The youthful diversion program was created in 2005 in response to widespread concern about the effects of underage substance abuse.

“We don’t take any operating under the influence [of alcohol or drugs] cases, which we think are very serious,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “But in the case of a minor in possession of alcohol, for example, we might send him or her to an educational program, to talk to people who specialize in treating people with brain injuries and to victims of drunk-driving. There is an array of educational programs we utilize, as well, in specific cases.”

Sometimes incidents of alcohol and substance abuse involve other charges, such as assault and battery or malicious destruction of property, for example. Each is reviewed on a case-by-case basis, Ms. Quatromoni said. If assault, violence and problems with anger management are part of the scenario, the youth involved is assessed and referred to counseling, if necessary.

“We don’t do this alone and we’re not saying we do, because it takes cooperation from the police, from probation, from the clerk magistrates, in order for us to do what we need to do,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “We are, of course, the gatekeeper on prosecution. So we review eligible cases, and we take referrals from the schools and from the police.”

The court diversion process

There are two caseworkers in the youthful diversion program. One handles the Falmouth, Martha’s Vineyard, and Nantucket courts, and the other, the Barnstable and Orleans courts.

“Once we identify a case that is going to come before the court, we review it, collaborate with the parties involved, depending on which town it is in, and say that we think it is diversion-eligible,” Ms. Quatromoni said.

If everyone agrees, there is no hearing or arraignment. The case is held open for six months.

“At the time the youth will be in court, we sit down with them and their parents, if that’s applicable, and we explain what we’re going to have them do,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “They aren’t fooled into it; they have to volunteer to take part.”

The program has strict requirements and consequences if they are not met. “We try to explain that a court record may interfere with what you want to do in life, so think about it.”

If a youth agrees to enter the program, the caseworker discusses his or her case with court officials and puts everything into a contract that includes consequences for non-compliance.

“Now, the boiler plate part of it is, the individuals always have to take responsibility for what they did,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “So if they say, ‘No, I didn’t really do it,’ well, then, that’s not going to work. We have to have some agreement here.

“So they have to take responsibility; then they have to write a letter of apology,” she continued. “They also are all required to do some level of hours of community service, and they’re free to pick something that interests them or something they can do.”

The caseworkers communicate with the community service officials to confirm the volunteer hours have been done.

“In a case where there is a restitution involved, someone broke a window or kicked a door or something like that, then we handle that as well,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “We make sure money comes back to the victim on that.”

Youth diversion program participants are also subject to random drug and alcohol testing.

“We do put timeframes on when things have to be accomplished so that at the end, all they have to do is stay out of trouble,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “If they’re not holding up their end of the bargain, if they’re not submitting to testing, getting assessed, or doing their counseling, that’s a cause for termination from the program.”

With termination, the court is notified and the date for a hearing or arraignment is activated. “We maintain a diversion database, so we know who’s been through the program,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “So in terms of second bites of the apple, that doesn’t usually happen.”

Those who do comply with the program must reflect on their experience prior to its completion. “We have them write a two-typed page essay about what they learned and what their goals are, because we find that some kids haven’t even really thought about it,” Ms. Quatromoni said.

Upon successful completion, a letter is issued to inform everyone involved in the case that it will not be prosecuted. “It’s as though it never happened,” Ms. Quatromoni said.

Diversion by the numbers

From July 1 through September 25, there were 25 cases on Martha’s Vineyard, 5 juvenile and 20 youthful, referred to the court diversion program, according to Ms. Quatromoni. Nantucket had 26 cases, including 8 juvenile and 18 youthful, and the mainland, 101 cases, including 11 juvenile and 39 youthful. The majority of them involved substance offenses.

The programs are not limited to a certain number of participants or only to youths who live on the Cape and Islands. Some cases involve young people who commit offenses while vacationing on the Cape or Islands but live elsewhere in Massachusetts or out of state.

“We administer from afar,” Ms. Quatromoni said. “We don’t make them come back for community service. They can do it in their venue, wherever they are, but we get documentation on it.”

Ms. Quatromoni estimates that about 86 to 88 percent of participants complete the diversion programs successfully.

“We have done some follow-up over time, a look back to see how are we doing, whether the kids who have had this benefit are coming back into the court system,” she said. “On the juvenile side, we’re doing really well; around at least 70 percent don’t come back into touch.”

Ms. Quatromini said she hopes to get a university interested in doing a more thorough analysis of the programs’ data and their success rates. “It would be good for all involved for it to become a best practice,” she said.

A thumbs-up

The diversion program has proven to be a welcome and helpful tool for local court officials. In a recent phone conversation with The Times, Edgartown District Court Clerk/Magistrate Liza Williamson said she is pleased that there is now a formal program.

“I used to do my own version at the clerk’s hearing level, especially for young adults who were first-time offenders,” Ms. Williamson said. “I would have them do community service, and hold off on proceedings until the end of summer or for six months. Now that they have the diversion program, I’m sending them there. It’s a good example of restorative justice in a small community setting.”

Ms. Williamson said she likes that the program provides consistency, especially at the clerk’s hearing level, where she often deals with young adults from outside Massachusetts or young Islanders enrolled in out-of-state colleges.

“It’s important that everything be meted out even-handedly and there is consistency in a punishment,” she said. “And it’s nice when it’s more rehabilitative than punitive, especially at that age.”