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DA partners up to divert Fifth Ward juveniles out of criminal justice system

August 7, 2019

The Harris County District Attorney’s Office has joined with community partners to divert 70 to 100 young people a year from Houston’s Fifth Ward out of the criminal justice system.

The program which was organized by the newly created Center for Urban Transformation—a Fifth Ward community-based organization—seeks to end the school-to-prison pipeline by diverting 12 to 16-year-olds. The initiative includes opportunities for volunteering and community service, mentors and increased access to social services while sealing arrest and detention records.

“Young people may make mistakes, but that doesn’t mean they should have to pay for it for the rest of their lives,” said District Attorney Kim Ogg. “By investing in our youth, we can change the trajectory of the next generation. We can elevate the entire community.”

In addition to making investigators and prosecutors available to help divert these youth when they have been arrested on low-level charges, the District Attorney’s Office has devoted $200,000 to the program from asset forfeiture funds to help seed the project over the next two years.

The program is similar to juvenile diversion initiatives emerging around the country. When law enforcement officers encounter a young person in Fifth Ward alleged to have committed select offenses, that youth will be eligible for diversion. The youth must report within 5 days to the Center for Urban Transformation to enroll and meet with case managers. Case managers will work with them for 6 to 12 months to ensure he or she completes the diversion plan and meets individualized goals.

Those goals include stabilizing the young person’s life when it comes to education, health, mental health, employment and housing. Juveniles who participate can have arrest and detention records sealed.

Successful implementation of the plan will mean lower rates of recidivism, reduced amounts of youth crime and improved perceptions of safety as reported in annual community surveys.

From 2012 to 2017, an average of 100 youth were arrested annually in Fifth Ward. For the first year of operation, the Fifth Ward program will serve at least 30 of those young people, focusing on those who commit nonviolent offenses, then expand to serve increasingly more young people, some before any offense is ever committed.

“This project in the Fifth Ward is a great first step, but we can do more,” Ogg said. “We can accomplish great things when we partner with all kinds of different agencies and organizations.”

The Center for Urban Transformation is a new organization that sprang from a collaboration of the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation, Pleasant Hill Ministries, Berg & Androphy, Houston Habitat for Humanity and Legacy Community Health. The diversion program is being funded initially with contributions from each of these collaborating organizations, private foundation grants and the District Attorney’s Office.

In the fall of 2018, the Center for Urban Transformation convened the Fifth Ward Public Safety Leadership Council to create a juvenile justice strategy in the model of other restorative justice programs. The Leadership Council will provide oversight of the new program through monthly meetings to review cases and overall progress. The Council is led by the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corporation and includes Berg & Androphy; Pleasant Hill Ministries; the Harris County District Attorney; Harris County Department of Juvenile Probation; UH Center for Children, Law and Policy; TSU Center for Justice Research; Rice Kinder Institute; 8 Million Stories; Urban Enrichment; My Brother’s Keeper; and Legacy Community Health.  Yes Prep, and Baylor College of Medicine are also supporting the new organization.

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