Getting them on the right track

Ramsey County's juvenile diversion service has gotten a refresh thanks, in part, to a special community-policing pilot project on the East Side.

Special efforts and the improved results of the East Side project inspired some changes in Ramsey County's overall efforts to prevent youths from sliding deeper into the justice system, said Ramsey County Attorney John Choi.

Improved diversion services no longer focus solely on recidivism, but "help youth get on the right track in life."

Changes in diversion services include service providers contacting eligible kids and their families in person, rather than just relying on mailing a letter. Service providers will also work to improve school connectedness and attendance, as well as foster positive relationships with committed, caring adults.

"As parents, law enforcement, prosecutors, community providers and school staff, we all need to do whatever we can to help keep our kids on track for a successful future," Choi said. "Diversion programs offer opportunities to change behavior and, in the long run, change young lives and keep the public safe."

At Choi's request, the Ramsey County Board of Commissioners approved contracts with three community service providers, including the East Side's 180 Degrees, Inc., to provide pre-court diversion services to eligible juveniles in Ramsey County.

St. Paul Youth Services will receive $125,000 to provide services in St. Paul and Maplewood while Northwest Youth and Family Services will receive $70,000 to provide services for all Ramsey County suburbs except Maplewood.

The county commissioners also approved a separate contract with 180 Degrees for up to $30,000 to provide additional strategic interventions for juvenile offenders who qualify for diversion services.

The approved contracts come at the end of a year-long community engagement and request-for-proposals process that focused on developing and establishing community goals and preferred outcomes to help troubled kids get on the right path toward life-long success.

Inspiring tactics

The St. Paul Police Department, Ramsey County Attorney's Office and the St. Paul City Attorney's Office joined forces for the Intelligence Led Policing Through Community Policing, Community Prosecution and Community Participation project, or IL3CP for short.

A large part of the project, which came to a close this past fall, focused on helping at-risk youth. It worked to prevent escalating contacts with the justice system or becoming victims.

After a teen broke curfew and was taken to the curfew center by police, he or she was either picked up by a parent or guardian, or dropped off at home by police.

The next day, a service worker visited the family to discuss the offense and other issues that might be leading to the behavior.

In some cases, the kids and families were encouraged to do a pre-court diversion assessment. These special diversion assessments sought to find deeper-rooted issues that are causing the curfew issues, and work to solve them.

After the assessment, the teens and their families were provided with resources to address their specific problems.

Fostering success

"It was great to have had the experience and the lessons learned from the IL3CP project," Choi said.

Those involved in the project quickly learned the success rate of diversion program participants was very much determined by the teens and their families showing up to the first initial assessment and meeting, he explained.

"Once we get them in the door, we have a great success rate," said Choi.

The project also found that many parents didn't even know their kids had been picked up on curfew, Choi added. Some parents didn't understand the purpose of diversion services and felt it was only more trouble for their family and child.

Now, requiring service providers seek out eligible kids and their families in-person will greatly increase the chance for success.

"We will be more proactive ... and explain that we're trying to help," Choi said.

Choi also highlighted a new focus on the importance of establishing the "foundational values" of attending and finishing high school, the potential of post-secondary education and the benefit of loving, caring, supportive adults.

"Having someone who's older who cares about you is huge," Choi said.

Diversion services will work to improve the youths' relationships with their parents, he said, though in some cases that just isn't possible. Service providers will also work to connect teens with adult mentors from the community to provide that important guidance and support.

Choi also wants to keep an eye on participants of color, since their success rates are lower than those of other participants. Service providers will specifically work to improve these success rates, addressing the racial disparities.

Overall, there will be "a focus on the community engagement and getting the community to recognize that they should be involved in the future of our kids," Choi added.