By Rebecca Pirius
“Now I know what it means to be a man.” Last week, policymakers heard these powerful words from a young man participating in a felony diversion program in Philadelphia called “The Choice is Yours.”
The policymakers visited The Choice is Yours (TCY) as part of the Intergovernmental Policy Academy: Young Adults and the Justice System. Over the course of a year, the policy academy brought together city, county, and state representatives to identify and align policies at the different levels of government to better serve young adults in the justice system.
Young adults ages 18-24 are overrepresented at every stage in the criminal justice system and have some of the highest rates of victimization and behavioral health disorders. Emerging research is shedding light on this age group’s unique developmental and behavioral health needs and offending characteristics. This has prompted some stakeholders to reevaluate the efficacy of traditional justice responses and explore strategies “outside the box” to successfully redirect the trajectory of justice-involved young adults.
For the past year, the five teams participating in the policy academy discussed challenges and strategized interventions and responses to improve outcomes for justice-involved young adults. The teams—which included representatives from law enforcement, local government, social service agencies, the courts and state legislatures—worked on policies specific to their jurisdiction’s needs. Some examples include improving data collection and sharing, increasing pre-arrest diversion for young adults with behavioral health needs, establishing text reminders for court dates and establishing young adult courts.
The teams heard from local and national experts on issues including effective data collection, community engagement, behavioral health, and racial and ethnic disparities affecting Latino and Latina young adults. They also heard the stories of three young gentlemen participating in TCY.
TCY participants are typically first-time offenders, ages 18 to 29, who have been arrested for possession with intent to distribute a controlled substance. TCY offers young adults a chance to have their criminal records expunged upon successful completion of a 13-month program that includes reparative community service, job-readiness training, educational programming, mentoring, and job search and placement services.
Instead of being locked up in prison at a cost to taxpayers of approximately $40,000 a year, TCY participants have a chance to avoid the stigma of a criminal record, get an education, find a job and “be(come) a man.” The cost of the program is around $5,200 per participant.
The Philadelphia convening was the third and final for the policy academy, which represents a year-long collaborative effort of the National League of Cities, NCSL and the National Association of Counties, with support from the Safety and Justice Challenge of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.
Rebecca Pirius is a senior policy specialist in NCSL's Criminal Justice Program.