by Rob Taylor Jr., Courier Staff Writer
Countless studies have shown that youth, in the long run, are better served when offered a “second chance,” so to speak, after committing a non-violent, low-level offense, rather than being sent to a jail or detention center via a conviction or prosecution.
Pittsburgh’s North Side is the home of the Foundation of HOPE, and its “HOPE Diversion Program,” which provides local youth that second chance.
Jeff Williams, the diversion program’s director, told the New Pittsburgh Courier that the program is best described as a “pre-arrest/pre-booking initiative,” which gives young people, most of whom are African American and from the North Side, “the opportunity to remain in the community while addressing their most immediate needs. The program serves as an alternative to being formally charged with a delinquent offense,” he said in an exclusive interview, March 13.
On Feb. 6, 21 youth were recognized and honored for “doing the right thing after being given a second chance,” Williams said, at an event tapped “The HOPE Awards,” at Alloy 26 inside Nova Place. The 2020 edition was the second of its kind.
The HOPE Diversion Program serves youth from age 12 up to the adult age of 26, but most of those in the program are not adults. The organization partners with local law enforcement agencies, juvenile probation, the Housing Authority of the City of Pittsburgh, the Allegheny County District Attorney’s Office and other community agencies to identify a youth who commits a low- to mid-level, non-violent offense, but can be better served in the program rather than a prosecution.
Examples of those offenses include theft, fighting, loitering, trespassing, disorderly conduct, or drug offenses.
After the HOPE Diversion Program staff provides the youth with health care and mental health evaluations, the organization’s team develops an individualized plan of action for the youth, which focuses on counseling, treatment, and behavior modification measures. If the youth meets all the pre-determined obligations, the HOPE Diversion Program team requests for the case against the teen to be dismissed. If the youth does not comply with the obligations, a formal prosecution could occur.
“The program helps the youth learn from their mistakes, repairs the harm they caused to their family and community and holds them accountable for their actions while ensuring they make amends for the harm they caused,” Williams told the Courier.
Other parts of the implementation plan for the youth include housing assistance, grief counseling, job-readiness skills and performing community service.
According to a HOPE Diversion Program brochure on the organization’s website, what’s unique about the program is that it “helps communities to understand that certain offenses can be viewed as a public health problem rather than a crime against society.”
And from a state government perspective, diversion programs for youth are encouraged. The Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Committee has a subcommittee dedicated to promoting the creation of pre-adjudication diversion programs for youth across the state.
While the HOPE Diversion Program reaches out to youth who have committed a non-violent offense, there are other diversion programs in the state, such as the Good Shepherd Mediation Program, in Philadelphia, that works with schools and community agencies to help youth who have committed or have yet to commit a non-violent offense.
Funding for the HOPE Diversion Program is provided by the Youth Services Investment Fund of The Pittsburgh Foundation, the Buhl Foundation, the Dollar Bank Foundation, The Pittsburgh Presbytery and individual donors, among others, according to the organization’s website.
(ABOUT THE TOP PHOTO: DIONA HAWK, EDLISHA HOWARD AND HEAVEN PORCH, three of the 21 youth honored at the second HOPE Awards, Feb. 6, on the North Side. – Photo by Gail Manker)