Working model

June 29, 2005

A COOPERATIVE pilot project to shorten the time city juveniles wait between arrest and court resolution has passed its test drive, and the state Department of Juvenile Services is wise to commit to paying for the team effort to continue.

The joint immediate charging unit - three assistant state's attorneys and one court clerk - forms a hub that not only has cut the wait for justice from months to weeks but has saved some children from incarceration in the meantime.

After being charged, most youths still are sent home with a parent to wait two months or more for their first court appearance. For those whose parents pick them up between noon and 9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, though, police, DJS and the unit's attorneys determine whether charges will be filed; if they are charged, the court clerk immediately signs them up for a court date a week later.

In the last half of 2004, more than 97 percent of those children showed up on their court date; 82 percent of those charged the regular way, with a court summons mailed to the home and a court date 45 days in the future, appeared. The unit shaves about 36 days from the whole process, according to its first-year statistics; 83 percent of the fast-track cases were resolved within 60 days.

The stepped-up timetable helps troubled kids realize that there are consequences to delinquent activity; waiting months (even up to a year in some cases) severs the mental connection between cause and effect. It also gives them plenty of time to make more mistakes and garner more charges, compounding their troubles. And those who do not show up for that first court date earn warrants for their arrest; if they are picked up on another charge, no matter how small, the added weight of an outstanding warrant could send them to juvenile lockup.

For those whom the court does declare delinquent, this approach could get them the rehabilitation, treatment and services they need that much sooner.

The state's attorneys at the juvenile center on North Gay Street also help DJS intake workers and city and state police understand which charges are likely to pass muster in court. Officials say there are fewer cases of overcharging, which in the past often led to children being incarcerated while waiting to appear in court only to have their cases dismissed.

This method served the 162 children charged in the last quarter of 2004 well. But there were another 232 children charged the slowpoke way. DJS has made the right decision to retain the program; next fiscal year, it should extend it to reach most children.

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