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Summer 1997
   
How Philadelphia Salvages Teen Criminals
Beth Z. Palubinsky, John J. DiIulio, Jr.
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Juvenile justice experts have thought hard about how to treat the toughest kids, the young thugs on their way to becoming superpredators. But what about the not-so-tough malefactors—the 14-year-old shoplifters or the 15-year-olds caught with drugs? These are kids whose fate very often hangs in the balance: they might grow up to be hardened criminals, but many can still be saved. Most cities stand by and leave such kids to chance, with the inevitable destructive results. But not Philadelphia: the City of Brotherly Love has devised an imaginative institution called the Youth Aid Panel, or YAP, aimed at returning them to the straight and narrow. And early indications are that YAP really works.

YAP began as a pilot program of the Philadelphia district attorney's office a decade ago, the brainchild of a dynamic duo, Mike Cleary and John Delaney, both self-described "Philly boys" passionate about their city's future. Before joining the DA's office, Cleary had a decade-plus tour of duty as a juvenile probation officer in the city's high-crime badlands. "I knew," he recalls, "that I was spending all my time with the most serious youth offenders and was not able to hold the other kids accountable, get them into treatment, help them one-on-one, connect with their schools, or what have you. And I knew that this failure to monitor was a factor in their future crime and delinquency."

Veteran judge Daniel R. Coburn of the New Jersey Superior Court, another juvenile justice innovator, explains why this is so. The great mass of juvenile offenders who commit misdemeanors or even first-time felonies—those Coburn calls "minnows" by contrast with the chronic and violent teen "sharks"—usually get sentenced to probation. But that turns out to be utterly meaningless in most cases: such kids get little or no real supervision on probation and conclude, reasonably enough, that crime has no consequences. "The surest way to turn a minnow into a shark," Coburn observes, "is to catch him, book him, and then do nothing to monitor his behavior or hold him accountable. Today's minnows—the ones who stay on the streets, beat the system, and think juvenile probation is a big joke—are tomorrow's street sharks, including your predatory, no-fear-of-jail great white sharks."

Cleary and Delaney, the deputy DA in charge of juvenile proceedings, believed that "there had to be a better way to straighten out and save these first-time offenders," as Delaney puts it. Cost made it impossible to hire the legions of probation officers needed to do the job. Instead, the two prosecutors realized, they might be able to harness what Delaney calls "our town's greatest resource—the people in the neighborhoods." From that insight sprang YAP—a corps of citizen volunteers from Philadelphia's inner-city neighborhoods dedicated to straightening the crooked lives of the city's more salvageable young criminals before it is too late. Today the program operates throughout Philadelphia's 24 police districts, with 10 to 15 adult volunteers in each district.

Beulah Parker, a small, bespectacled, 61-year-old black woman with a ready smile, perfectly personifies the program. She doesn't look very tough; in fact, she looks exactly like the vulnerable, purse-clutching, slightly hunched-over old lady whom urban teen criminals love to mug. But looks can be deceiving. For a quarter century, Parker worked as a special-education and shop teacher in a dilapidated local high school. A churchgoing Baptist, she raised 14 children in a modest row house, mostly on her own as a streetwise single mother. "I tell the kids, `I haven't always been this old; I know what's happening,'" she says. "You must be honest with the child and the parent that the child did bad, did wrong, but that we in the community expect better from him, want better for him, and don't take excuses." She puts juvenile troublemakers and their parents on notice: "I will be calling you sometime," she warns. "I know the neighborhood. I might stop at your home. I might come to school. So you never know where I might be. You can run, but you can't hide."

It is no idle boast. On the second and fourth Monday evenings of each month, Parker walks over to a local public hospital and finds her way to the conference room. There she gathers for several hours with a group of nine of her adult neighbors, all but one of them black, four of them men. The group includes a forklift operator, a small variety-store merchant, a public school kitchen worker, and a graduate student. A Philadelphia police officer joins them, to act as a liaison between the program and the police department. On a typical night Parker and nearly 250 YAP panelists across the city will hear two or three cases of first-time juvenile offenders arrested for crimes ranging from misdemeanors to low-level felonies—fighting in school, defacement or destruction of property, possession of drugs, retail theft, possession of weapons, simple or aggravated assault.

Most of the members of Parker's group found the program through the newspaper notices and radio announcements that the DA's office runs once a year to recruit volunteers. The office then carefully screens applicants. There are no hard-and-fast requirements to get into a YAP, beyond residence in the police district, a willingness to commit the required time, and the DA's sense from both the written application and a 30-minute interview that an applicant has the necessary maturity and judgment. But the DA won't accept public officials, ward leaders, or local party committee members, no matter how well-meaning, to ensure that the program remains immaculately non-political.

Once screened, prospective panelists undergo six hours of intensive training from the assistant DAs who run the program and from the staff of a local church-based mediation and crisis resolution program. The training, which also serves as a final screening mechanism, centers on preparing panelists to ask the juveniles who will come before them probing questions about their offenses, school performance, friends, and home life. The training session also shows the panelists how to craft the contract that ultimately results from every offender's appearance before the YAP.

In a typical introductory YAP training session conducted last year, over 50 adult volunteers from the neighborhood, most of them black, arrived right on time at a Philadelphia police station and crammed into a dank, sweaty back room. Asked for his views about what he termed "these new Yappers," one veteran patrolman in attendance responded: "Most citizens want to sit home, watch TV, and bitch about young punks destroying the neighborhood. But these people come in, invest their time and energy, and help the situation by holding kids who get arrested accountable. I've seen all kinds of citizen volunteer programs come and go. YAP is different. That's why most cops respect it."

The first hour of the training was a crash course in the workings of the juvenile justice system, the legal complications surrounding the adjudication of youngsters, crime statistics, the history of the YAP program, and the nitty-gritty of how YAPs work. "Don't worry too much about the details," the instructors from the DA's office repeatedly reassured the trainees; "just get the basics and trust your common sense." But college freshmen determined to get a perfect grade never looked so intent on catching every word and jotting down every point.

In the second and third hours of the training, people who'd chaired YAPs came in to help field the trainees' endless stream of questions. What the new Yappers wanted most was general guidance on dos and don'ts. "Can I push the child or the parent to get involved in my church, because that's what they really need?" asked one trainee—to a small chorus of amens. "No way," replied a DA-trainer, whose knowing smile said he had heard that question before. He went on to explain how allowing any such activity in the YAP program would raise thorny church-state issues. The questioner and the crowd nodded in satisfaction.

Several YAP trainees wanted to know how to deal with uncooperative parents. "Let's face it," said one elderly trainee, "these children get into trouble when the parents aren't doing what they should be doing." A YAP chairman who was on hand responded with an example. "The other month," he recounted, "we had a boy who was charged with an aggravated assault, had flunked his courses, and didn't do anything outside the school but hang out—no sports, nothing. We gave him a contract that included doing community service work. He missed twice. I caught up with him at school, and he told me his mother wouldn't give him the subway token he needed to get to the service site. I called her up, and she gives me the line. You know, `I can't afford it.' So I came back at her. Said, `Look here, your son has on expensive sneakers—and you're telling me you can't afford a subway token so that this boy can do what he's supposed to do, meet the contract terms, get the help he needs, and avoid getting fingerprinted, going to court, and maybe going to jail? It's your call, but if he doesn't show up next week he's off the program and back to court for sure.'" The boy showed up and completed his contract.

"Back to court for sure" is no exaggeration. As the training drills into volunteers, YAP functions strictly as a voluntary pretrial diversion program. A juvenile can avoid criminal prosecution and the risk of a criminal record by appearing before a panel of his neighbors to answer for crimes and by complying fully with the punishments meted out by the panel. A common saying among YAP aficionados is: "Take YAP or take your chances." About nine out of ten of the 800 or so juveniles offered the YAP option (a total of about 10 percent of Philadelphia's yearly juvenile court referrals) have taken it.

The DA's office, in consultation with the police department and local probation and school officials, decides if a given youth is eligible for YAP. These officials must have a strong sense that the youth will cooperate with the process and see it through. The offender also must be enrolled in school and must be able to appear before the panel with a parent, guardian, or some other adult who has a strong, regular presence in his life. Finally, he must admit his guilt in a signed statement.

Each juvenile offender who participates in YAP normally appears before the panel located in his police district. His parent, guardian, or other responsible adult must attend with him. The YAP encourages victims to attend the hearing and take part, but it prohibits lawyers from participating (though they may be present), since the YAP is meant to seek a community-based, community-devised, community-enforced resolution to the offense. "I love it," says one YAP police officer liaison, "when the lawyers waltz in thinking they're going to run the show. They fill the kids' heads with tons of self-exculpatory crap and teach them to beat the system. It's a pleasure telling them to `Shut up or get out! This is pretrial diversion, pal. Go peddle it elsewhere.'"

The panelists interview the youth and ask him to explain in his own words what happened. They may also interview the victim and the parents. Then they meet privately to talk about the case and decide what punishment to impose. Contract conditions typically include a combination of public service, restitution, curfew, essay writing, non-contact with the victim or bad company, counseling, and letters of apology.

If anything, the panelists' live performance outclasses their excellent training. One night last year, for example, a YAP heard the case of a teenager who brought a knife to school and carried it to a gang fight. In walked a surly 16-year-old, unprepared for the rapid-fire hour-long inquisition that quickly ensued.

"You're smiling," one panelist began. "It doesn't seem like getting arrested was a big deal to you." Before answering, the boy's eyes searched the room for sympathy, but found only ten streetwise sets of cold stares. The smile gone, he mumbled an answer into his shirtsleeve. "I can't hear or understand you," boomed another panelist, adding, "At this time you could be facing a murder charge. Do you realize that? If you had stabbed the other kids with angry strength, they could be dead or dying and you'd be locked up, maybe forever." The youth nodded in the affirmative, but then made the biggest mistake you can make if you are sitting before a YAP: he started to blame others for what he had done. "Excuse me," a panelist abruptly cut him off, "but I went to that school. I know that hallway, I live in this neighborhood, and I walk those streets every damn day. I don't have no knife. Most kids I know your age, including kids smaller than you, don't carry no knife. And you ain't the only kid that's got troubles. But you are the kid who brought a knife."

By this point, just ten minutes into the hearing, the young offender's surly bearing had followed his tough-guy smile and defiant, halfway-down-into-the-chair slouch into attitudinal oblivion. He was sitting up straight. He spoke clearly and audibly. He began dabbing at the tears welling up in his eyes. And almost exactly at the moment when the boy's reformed body language proclaimed this change in attitude, a panelist forced him to articulate it. "Do you understand that we ain't here to play games? We're here because you did something illegal, something wrong, something stupid, something dangerous to yourself and others?" "Yes, sir," he replied. A panelist at the opposite end of the table then asked, "How did you feel when you got arrested? Weren't you ashamed?" "A little," the boy said, "because I didn't know." "You didn't know what?" another panelist broke in. "You didn't know shame, or you didn't know you'd get caught, or you didn't know a knife could kill somebody? Do you want to be arrested again? Try to think of the consequences! Try!"

With half an hour still to go, tears were drying on the youth's cheeks, and the panel's emphasis subtly shifted from the take-responsibility inquisitorial to the tough-love therapeutic. "I'll tell you what makes me cry," a panelist said, leaning across the table and looking directly into the young man's eyes. "I feel like crying because you are in this mess, and without this panel you could be on your way to jail. I cry inside because you are going to hurt people and destroy your life if you don't stop the nonsense right here, right now. Why are you doing so poorly in school? Hanging out too much?"

By the end of the hearing, the panelists were working to get the boy to replay the misdeed in his head and see how it could and should never have happened. "Do you think you can make some other choice in this type of situation if it happens again?" came the concluding question. "Yes, I know I can. I have to," came the youngster's convincingly sincere-sounding reply.

The panel crafted a compliance contract for the juvenile. Although average contracts run three months, in this case the contract included six months of formal counseling, attendance at a church-based conflict-resolution workshop, community service, and an essay, to be submitted to the district's YAP police officer liaison, on how to avoid trouble in the future. While panels tailor each contract to the individual offender, most contracts follow certain time-tested patterns. For example, contracts for kids caught with illegal drugs often include such terms as cleaning up local parks, honoring a curfew, getting a part-time job, writing an essay on the dangers of substance abuse, or participating in the Police Athletic League. For theft, YAP panels typically require the offender to make full or partial restitution, write a letter of apology to the victim, and do community service work. For simple assault or weapons possession, common contract terms include all of the above, as well as restrictions on contact with victims, no association with delinquent or criminal peers, and conflict-resolution classes. In arranging community service and other contract tasks, the panels routinely turn to the YMCA and other local volunteer-based organizations.

"When they hear that the YAPs involve counseling and such," notes DA Cleary, "some people say, `Uh-oh, another touchy-feely program for juvenile criminals.'" But it's YAP's strictness that makes it effective. Though most probationers nationally, adult or juvenile, have to get counseling, do community service, pay restitution, and so on, only about half actually comply even in part, and almost none ever face jail for noncompliance. By contrast, YAP contracts, because they are actually binding, make unmistakably clear to offenders that the community expects them to make up for their misdeeds and to meet clear standards of behavior—and is watching to ensure that they do so. "The YAP program," chuckles one veteran panelist, "is touchy-feely, but only because the adults are positively touchy about kids doing crime, and a kid who fails to complete the contract is going to feel himself on the way back to court and possibly to jail." Explaining why the program works, DA Delaney stresses that YAP volunteers "aren't bashful about telling the kids that doing crime is wrong," and that "compliance with the terms is monitored and accountability is enforced."

One long arm of YAP is Leon Barnett, a barrel-chested black man who looks considerably younger than his 68 years. For over three decades Barnett was the dean of discipline at a Philadelphia junior high school. At a recent session of his YAP, he questioned a 15-year-old girl charged with aggravated assault against a teacher on school grounds. The incident began when the teacher reprimanded the girl for closing the classroom windows without permission.

As the hearing opened, the girl's attitude was brazen. Sitting there with her grandmother, who had told the panel that the girl was giving her terrible disciplinary problems at home, she rolled her eyes as the YAP chairman summarized the charges against her and asked for her explanation of what happened. "I was cold," the girl said, "and the teacher always hollers at me, and I'm tired when I get home, because sometimes I don't have a token for the bus and I have to walk, and I don't feel like doing what my grandmother wants."

Then Barnett began the questioning. "Whose classroom is it? . . . I said, whose classroom is it? . . . You cursed out the teacher. Why was that necessary? . . . It was not necessary. How about if I came to your house and started turning the lights on and off or opening and closing the windows? You've been late for school over and over. There's no reason for that. Why are you giving your grandmother a hard time and getting up in her face? . . . You're tired? Tired from what? Without grandmother you'd be in foster care or worse. And you don't listen to her? You've got to start saying `Yes, grandmother,' smile, and do what she asks. Be grateful for what you have. I know ten girls who would switch places with you in a minute if they could."

By the time Barnett had finished, the girl's eyes had stopped rolling and started tearing. Her contract included mandatory counseling, a curfew, and a letter of apology to the teacher. For her monitor she drew Celeste Harris, a 35-year-old black woman who works several jobs and is raising two teenage boys. During the hearing, Harris repeatedly warned the girl about her attitude. "You're a beautiful young black woman," Harris told her, "but now you look ugly. Your attitude makes you ugly. But you can change your attitude and be beautiful, get it together, and succeed."

Monitoring styles vary from YAP to YAP and from panelist to panelist. Harris will make weekly calls to the young woman who assaulted her teacher, "pop up at the house," and "see who she's hanging out with," she says. "But I won't hold her hand or baby her. If somebody doesn't put a tough love on her now, she will surely get into trouble again and again. Most of the kids we see aren't bad, but they're making bad choices, either because they have no parents or their parents are not being parents." Some monitors drop in at home; others meet the young person at school; still others, at the local fast-food outlet.

Out on a Saturday-morning monitoring visit to a gas station where a YAP juvenile was working part-time, a rookie panelist discovered what many veteran monitors report: that most youths absorb the panel's moral accountability message and welcome its follow-up monitoring. The boy brought the panelist in to meet his boss and begged him to stay so that he could show the monitor how fast he could repair a tire. "He was surprised, but he wasn't embarrassed to see me," the panelist-monitor reflects; "he was proud to show me he was complying, and just happy to have the contact."

Barnett has had much the same experience with several of the juveniles he has monitored. "It shows you what's there if you stay with these kids before it's too late," he says. "When I was coming up in this city," he recalls, "if you did something wrong, anybody in the neighborhood could reprimand you—and you dare not go home and say that Mr. or Mrs. Jones fussed at me because I was doing something wrong." Those days are long gone, he acknowledges, but YAP, he believes, is at least a remnant of such community cohesion and adult authority. It's hard not to agree with him that the YAPs, especially through the activities of the monitors, bolster old codes of decent community conduct.

In some cases they represent the only positive adult-child relationship the youngster has ever known. "One day," a YAP monitor recalls, "I closed my shop early and took a ride through the neighborhood. I caught up with one boy I was monitoring at his house, or thought I had. A big filthy, drunk-looking man comes to the door—not the same man who came with the child to the panel—and I tell him who I am and what I'm there for, and he just starts cussing the boy, cussing the boy's mother, and cussing the boy's real daddy, the man who had brought him to the panel. I said, `Man, don't be that way. Trash like that is why the child's so wild.' I really let him have it.

"As it was, the boy wasn't even down at the house. I caught up with him later the same day, hanging across at the school. Every other kid was smoking reefer, but not him. I took him aside and told him what happened at his house. He said, `Don't matter. Nobody care.' I said, `Boy, I'm here, ain't I? I'm here, I'm on your case, and I care.' After that, his whole attitude changed. He completed his contract, and his grades went way up too. That was about three years ago. Now he's got a job; now he's no fool. I saw him around Christmas, and he said—for the first time—`Man, thank you. You stayed on me. That little-bitty program saved me.' Felt real good."

Another YAP veteran, a middle-aged woman, paid a midday monitoring visit to the home of a girl whose contract required her not to associate with the friends with whom she'd been using drugs and starting trouble, including minor gang fights, in school. As the monitor made her way up the steps of the small row house, she could see a bunch of teenage girls in the living room. Music blared, and above it, she could hear, as she approached the front door, a barrage of foul language. "I thought, `Here's a failure for sure,'" she recounts. "I hesitated to knock on the door. I was a little scared. But, you know, I was angry too." She knocked. Nobody answered. "So I knocked hard with both fists." The music stopped, the cursing stopped, and the door flew open.

"She's at the store," said the preteenage sister of the YAP juvenile. "She was afraid you'd come, so she got out and left us. Okay?" "I went down to the store," the monitor recalls, "and she's there crying into a dishrag. I know it's more than we're supposed to do, but I spent the whole rest of the day on her. After three months in the program, she did everything she was supposed to do on the contract, or more. She liked knowing that I cared that she behaved herself and stayed away from trouble."

Once the youth completes the contract, his monitoring—and his connection to the YAP—ends. He is discharged from the program without ceremony or congratulation. Such youths, says Cleary, "are just doing what they're supposed to do." Cleary and Delaney discourage panelists from continuing relationships with their charges. "The panelists take on a lot as YAP members as it is. Hearing two, sometimes three, cases a night is hard work, and we don't want them to burn out."

Prosecutors Cleary and Delaney call YAP volunteers like Barnett, Parker, and Harris the city's "unsung heroes and heroines." But is YAP really working to keep minnows from becoming sharks? The preliminary data we have gathered suggest that it surely is. Fully 90 percent of offenders who are offered the YAP option take it, and 90 percent of those complete their contracts. Most of those who complete their contracts do not get arrested again in Philadelphia. The overall recidivism rate among all offenders who have appeared before YAPs since 1987 is an estimated 20 percent—less than a third the national recidivism rate among young people aged 10 to 17 who are adjudicated in a traditional court setting.

The program achieves these excellent results at relatively low cost. As a result of the program, each of the DAs assigned permanently to prosecute juvenile cases saves one hour a day of court time. Overall, YAP saves the city an estimated $250,000 a year in court costs.

The YAPs also strengthen inner-city communities. They attract adult volunteers who live in the offender's neighborhood, who know who commits crimes in the area and where, and who can act as the community's eyes, ears—and conscience. So YAP is true "community policing." No wonder the program attracts intense loyalty from panelists: some have served since the program's inception, and about 40 have served for four or more years. No wonder, too, that the Philadelphia DA's office has consulted with more than 40 other localities about replicating the program.

Of course, only more rigorous evaluation will show the precise effectiveness of YAP or YAP-like monitoring programs, and we are about to undertake such a detailed study. Already, though, it is clear that this real-life Philadelphia story has had a happy ending for many of the program's juveniles. One YAP panelist has no doubt about what makes the program effective. "We have difficult cases come to the panel every other week," he says. "One boy we had last summer was carrying a weapon. He could barely write. Couldn't spell `knife.' Spoke hardly a word, no matter what we said. But later, in an essay written as part of his contract, he puts down on paper what he wants from us: `Do more to make me act like I know what's right. Like you care what I do. Care about me enough to make me do right.' Some of these children are lost. But some are just begging to be held to the golden rule. They want to be pushed to do right by grown-ups in the neighborhood who care."

 

 

 
A community that makes sure crime has consequences helps stop minor malefactors from becoming major ones.
City Journal Summer 1997.
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