- Anthony Lane
- Jerry O'Hare still believes in the diversion program.
There's a fairly long list of things the 15-year-old and his friends didn't consider when they roved the streets of a Colorado Springs neighborhood firing BBs through neighbors' windows.
First off, breaking windows attracts attention.
It also pisses people off.
And attentive, pissed-off people often call police.
The inability to connect these dots, of course, is a big reason our criminal system is designed to treat teenagers differently from adults.
The 15-year-old, whose name the Independent is withholding because of his age, ended up facing a criminal mischief charge. With that came the prospect of a court appearance and, maybe, a juvenile record.
He had another option, though: to participate in the county's youth diversion program, completing hours of community service, paying reparation to the families whose homes he targeted, and hearing from them in a process known as victim mediation.
He chose diversion, and says it's opened his eyes.
"You see it from the victims' point of view," he says of his crime, sounding sad at the thought that children in some of the homes have lingering fears of flying BBs.
Officials tout this as the kind of program that can save government funds and deter teens from becoming criminals. But after 34 years as a widely praised alternative to the court system, youth diversion will change in the face of county budget cuts. First-time, nonviolent teen offenders, it appears, will still have the chance to keep their records clean, but they and their families will have to pay $200 for the opportunity.
"The times now dictate that, well, nothing's free," says Jerry O'Hare, who has overseen the program for the district attorney's office since 1990.
It could be worse. Don Spicer, a local attorney who specializes in juvenile cases, calls diversion an "A-plus-plus" program and says it could have been cut entirely after a proposed 1-cent sales tax to fund public safety and health failed in the November election.
But a fee, Spicer notes, could easily skew the system in favor of those with money. While $200 might not sound like much, it comes in addition to fees and reparation costs that diversion participants must already pay.
"Sure, there are going to be kids that are cut out," Spicer says.
Saving the program is just one of the challenges incoming district attorney Dan May faces. County commissioners already have cut his budget to around $9 million, a 10 percent reduction from 2008.
To keep the program running, May says, he's uncovered nearly $60,000 in leftover state grant money. But he'll still have to charge the $200 participant fee. May says he's looking at collecting donations or finding other ways to cover the cost for teens who can't afford it.
One paradox is that, without grants or other ways of paying for diversion, it could be cheaper for May to keep the kids in courts. Though a prosecutor's time costs money, the bill for the judge, public defenders, probation officers and others all come from state coffers.
O'Hare, who saw teens getting locked up when he worked in the correctional system, says the program will keep about 1,000 kids out of court this year. O'Hare adds that it offers an 85 percent success rate in keeping kids clear of probation, detention and other encounters with the judicial system.