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Worcester Emerges As Leader In Handling Juvenile Crime

Monday, July 22, 2013


Keeping Worcester County youth from falling into the deeper traps of incarceration is behind a pilot program that has turned around the local juvenile justice system.

In recent years Worcester has transformed from a city stagnant in its dealing with juvenile delinquency to an innovator in the field. The latest evidence: Worcester’s Central Region Reception Center was awarded the Carballo Governor’s Award Friday, for its role in reducing the number of low level juvenile offenders detained at secure facilities while awaiting court, keeping youth in school and their communities.

The award, a gold star for the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), which runs the center, puts Worcester at the forefront of a statewide shift away from juvenile detention, one in which it has historically lagged behind.

Juvenile detentions plummet in Worcester County

Juvenile detentions in Worcester County have decreased 55% since 2007, while arraignments have decreased only 44%, meaning that while juvenile crime continues to fall, juvenile detention has fallen at an even faster rate.

Five years ago, Worcester County had the highest number of low level juvenile offenders entering secure detention, said Barbara Morton, Director of the DYS Central Region. These statistics led to Worcester’s selection as a pilot site for the Juvenile Detention Alternatives Initiative (JDAI) funded by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and aimed at reducing the number of juvenile offenders held in secure detention. Low level offenders include young people arrested for disturbing the peace, property crimes, and probation violations.

Less detention of low level offenders means less recidivism

“What happens if you take low risk offenders and put them in high risk secure facilities is you have negative outcomes,” said Morton, who is also the Massachusetts JDAI State Coordinator. “Failure to return to school, peer contagion, interruption in special education and mental health services.” One stay in secure detention is a bigger predictor of reoffending than gang involvement, she said.

“Juveniles do best when they are kept close to their families and communities, and kept in an environment where they are able to receive positive reinforcement,” said Elyn Jones of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. “We’ve been able to do that successfully while not causing any rise in public safety issues or rates of recidivism for kids.”

JDAI gives juvenile courts more options

“We’ve made a whole lot of changes to how we actually do business, at least with regards to how we determine what services are needed,” said Steven McKeowen, First Assistant Chief Probation Officer at the Worcester Department of Juvenile Probation.

Thanks to JDAI, a joint effort of DYS, the Worcester Juvenile Court, Worcester Public Schools, and other youth serving agencies, Worcester County youth charged with low level offenses are now able to stay in their communities and schools while still receiving the supervision necessary to guarantee their appearance at court. Youth unable to stay with their own families are placed with foster families who have volunteered with the Department of Youth Services to house youth awaiting court dates.

“There was a time when we had kids coming in for misdemeanors and the only alternative we had with a criminal matter pending was to detain them,” said Judge Carol Erskine, First Justice of the Worcester County Juvenile Court. “I’m very proud of the fact that we’ve been able to work with these families, help these kids, and decrease the chances that they will ever see the inside of a detention facility.”

Judge Erskine, who signed on to participate in JDAI shortly after becoming First Justice, has spearheaded other detention alternatives and diversion programs in Worcester including Teen RIDE (Reality Intensive Driver Education), which reduced recidivism rates of youth who committed driving offenses from 33% to 5% in six years.

“JDAI is a little over twenty years old now, and we’re quite happy with the fact that it’s the most widely replicated juvenile justice reform initiative,” said Elyn Jones. “We now have 200 JDAI sites nationwide, in 39 states and the District of Columbia, and we’re excited to help youth turn around.”


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