By Matt Roy, Independent Newsmedia
Police and school officials will pilot a new program, which they hope may reduce the number of students charged with serious crimes while improving public safety.
Details of the proposed juvenile diversion program were presented at the Nov. 20 City Council work session at City Hall, 16000 N. Civic Center Plaza.
According to Surprise Police Chief Terry Young, the program will be operated on an experimental basis through a partnership between his department and the high schools within the city’s boundary, including Shadow Ridge, Valley Vista and Willow Canyon.
“Our presentation this evening is for information and discussion related to the components and benefits of a juvenile diversion program that we’re going to pilot through the three Dysart Unified School District high schools here in the city being run or coordinated by our school resource officers,” Mr. Young explained.
The chief credited Officer Chris Thomas with discovering and proposing the pilot program, for which police and school officials have signed a memorandum of understanding to begin implementing through the remainder of the school year.
“This was his idea,” Mr. Young said. “He learned of this somewhere, researched it, brought it forward, understood the value of it and, for lack of a better word, sold it to us and did an outstanding job explaining the benefits associated with it.”
Mr. Thomas is one of the department’s three school resource officers, who – along with officers Wendy Klarkowski and Morgan Williams – will administer the program at the campuses.
The diversion program is worth examining, Mr. Young said, because criminal prosecution and incarceration for student-committed offenses leads to higher crime rates and can increase criminality for some young people.
“Once we involve juveniles in the formal criminal justice system, the recidivism is really high and what we see more often than not are those juveniles that are brought into that system, they quickly start a downward spiral,” Mr. Young said. “Their path to success starts to narrow significantly as they start working down this other road.”
But by dealing with some on-campus crimes outside the traditional justice system, individual and community outcomes may be improved, the chief suggested.
“If there are ways to hold them accountable and still deal with these issues in a way that they make amends, they understand the wrongdoing and are able to start working in a more positive direction that benefits that individual but also benefits our entire community,” Mr. Young said.
Mr. Thomas said the three SROs had worked on the proposal together over the summer believing there can be a better way to hold students accountable for their actions, while reducing the costs and burdens on the courts and saving those resources for higher-risk offenders.
“The goal of diversion programs is to reduce recidivism without having to formally process youth in the justice system,” Mr. Thomas said. “The Surprise Police Department’s juvenile diversion program will attempt to remove low-risk youth, such as status offenders or select first-time misdemeanor offenders, from the traditional juvenile court system.”
Offenses eligible for diversion include status offenses – those specific to underage usage, such as alcohol, tobacco and vapes – as well as truancy, fighting, minor criminal damage, simple assault, theft, sexting, and bullying or harassment.
For crimes with victims, such as theft or assault, the victim would need agree to allow diversion options for the suspect, otherwise the offender would face the traditional consequences for their actions.
A student can only divert for a specific offense one time; and only up to three potential diversions will be allowed over the course of their high school years.
The SROs have developed a matrix of potential consequences for various offenses and diversion options will be tailored to each student. Those entering diversion will sign a contract with specific terms to complete; those who fail to meet the terms would be removed from the program, Mr. Thomas said.
“Unlike traditional juvenile justice, we will create a diversion specific to what act they have committed and we will try to educate them on why it was harmful to the victim,” Mr. Thomas said. “They will also be held accountable for the duration of the diversion – if they fail to complete the terms of the diversion, they are removed from the program immediately.”
According to Mr. Thomas, a successfully implemented program will potentially reduce the annual number of arrests by up to two-thirds, reduce suspension times, and address offenses more directly and relevantly with active cooperation between police and school officials, as well as parents.
Vice Mayor Ken Remley asked if diversion might have other benefits for students, who seek to move on to college or military service after high school.
“When kids get arrested and then they go to get out of high school and they want to get in the military, sometimes it causes a real problem,” Mr. Remley said. “Would this possibly eliminate some of those problems?”
Mr. Thomas affirmed diversion keeps the slate clean for those seeking future opportunities.
“It would, because no charges are actually being submitted to the courts. It’s all staying in-house,” Mr. Thomas said.
According to the department’s MOU with the school district, the program will run through June 30, 2019 with an option to extend it for another year up to three times.
The program will require no additional staffing and will be implemented primarily by the SROs as part of their regular work load.
The $4,800 annual cost for the program’s computer application licensing will be covered in the first year by the city; the city and school district would potentially negotiate a cost-sharing agreement if the program is extended past the first year.