Berkshire District Attorney Harrington launches new juvenile justice initiative

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PITTSFIELD, Mass. (WWLP)–The Berkshire District Attorney’s office has created a new initiative focused on how to treat juveniles in the justice system.

Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington’s plan is to shift from a court-centered model of addressing juvenile delinquency to a community-based model, focused on ending the school-to-prison pipeline.

The plan will hold juvenile offenders accountable while encouraging positive youth development through proven strategies to reduce teen recidivism and address the root causes of delinquency.

It includes prioritizing diversion, expanding community programming, advocating for new policies, and creating a community-led advisory committee.

The initiative is a complementary piece to the Criminal Justice Reform Act, backed by the Berkshire Delegation, passed by the Massachusetts Legislature and signed by Gov. Charlie Baker last year. The bill made several changes to how the justice system addresses delinquency, including decriminalizing certain minor and school-based offenses and creating a mechanism to increase the use of diversion programs as alternatives to incarceration.

The Berkshire District Attorney’s Office created a Juvenile Justice Unit and is growing its diversion program, which builds on the foundation set by the Probation and the Juvenile Court. The unit includes a prosecutor, victim witness advocate, and diversion coordinator.

The offending youth will be required to follow a rigorous and individualized program involving a combination of mental health and substance abuse services, youth programs, mentors, and job placements to avoid court involvement. The individualized plan holds youth to a higher, but more appropriate, standard of behavior than has been traditionally required in the justice system.

At the same time, the office will continue to place a high priority on supporting the victims of crimes. Guidelines are in place to ensure that victims in cases deemed eligible for juvenile diversion have access to victim services and advocacy.

A team of community members representing diverse backgrounds, geography and expertise will provide leadership on juvenile justice matters, including policy recommendations, facilitate training, and review data collected through juvenile justice programs to identify areas for improvement, and to ensure juveniles are being treated fairly across all demographics.

Throughout Massachusetts, the highest recidivism rate is among the 18- to-24-year-old age bracket and 85 percent of youth arraigned in court are accused of low-level, nonviolent crimes. Half of the teenagers in detention have only misdemeanors as their most serious offense.

In 2018, just one of 1,159 Berkshire youth involved with juvenile court was eligible to be indicted as a “youthful offender,” which is designated for serious or chronic offenders.

The costs are high. In 2014, the Justice Policy Institute reported that it costs Massachusetts taxpayers $172,824 per year to incarcerate one juvenile.

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