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A Clean Slate: Juvenile Diversion Program Provides A Chance To Start Over

Rhema Thompson

There’s something universally jarring about the sound of shackles. It’s slow and, while high-pitched, carries a timbre of gloom.

It’s especially unnerving when those shackles are chained to the feet and arms of a slight, young man, like the one who stood in front of an audience on a recent evening.

“At the end of the day, y’all are going home. I’m still locked up,” he told the group of young men sitting before him.

His words were quiet, but he had their full attention.

He was one of the first guest speakers to take the the floor during a three-hour crash course in crime and consequences at the State Attorney’s Office.

In the audience sat 50 other youthful offenders, black and white with ages ranging from 11 to 20 and crimes spanning from petty theft to battery.

But each of those charges has yet to be filed and may never be filed, if they can get through the evening’s class and the other requirements that come with it.

The young men are all part of a local diversion programs offered to youthful offenders.

A family affair

Alan Louder is director of the Juvenile Diversion Program at the State Attorney’s Office.

Diversion programs are not new in Jacksonville. They’ve been offered to juveniles in various forms for more than 30 years. Louder took over about six years ago and put his own spin on it to make it a family affair.

“From a jail perspective and from a diversion perspective, just working with the child wasn’t going to change the whole household so now diversion has become...a holistic approach, the whole family getting everything that they need, ” he said.

That may involve family counseling sessions, adult education programs or a host of other services. But parent involvement isn’t just a suggestion. It’s a requirement. Juveniles can’t successfully complete the program unless their parents or guardians show up.

One-on-one, Louder comes off as kind of a gentle giant, jovial and laid-back.

But as the towering, barrel-chested director addresses the men in class, it becomes clear he lives up to his name.

“Why in the freest country in the world do you want to emulate somebody who's not free?” he asks them. “Think about it.”

In the audience, the juveniles sit in pressed button ups and ties on one side, their parents on the other. Dozens of faces stare at Louder blankly. Some look slightly irritated. A handful in the front look pretty engaged. Others look very sleepy. A few boys appear to be drifting off.

That’s when Louder comes in with a reminder: If you’re caught dozing, you’re out of the class and back on the court docket.

The State Attorney’s Office offers a total of 15 such programs in Jacksonville, each tailored toward a different set of offenders. Seven of them specifically target juveniles.

One of the ways in which youthful offenders are diverted from prosecution — civil citations — has been the topic of highly publicized debate of late. Civil citations are used as an alternative to arrests for youth who commit first-time, non-violent misdemeanors. In Duval County, they’re used for about 31 percent of eligible youth—a number that’s been widely criticized by some local civil rights groups.

By comparison, other large, urban counties in the state, such as Miami-Dade, issue citations in about 86 percent of cases — a point noted in a resolution on civil citations passed by the Jacksonville City Council in May.

However, State Attorney Angela Corey has argued the citations are only one of several options for diverting youth after they are arrested.

Last year, about 950 young men and women in Jacksonville were referred to one of the local programs led by Alan Louder, according to State Attorney’s Office data. That amounts to roughly 30 percent of all juvenile cases opened in 2013. Another 1,300 participated in a formal diversion program at the state-level, according to the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice. Unlike at the district-level, the state justice department only counts those cases in which the charges have been actually been filed.

‘Somebody’s going to wear this uniform’

In Alan Louder’s class, the conversation is blunt, peppered with a few choice words, and there’s little tolerance for acting out in the class.

The young inmate, who addressed the class that night, knows from experience.

He told the audience that he sat where they did about two months ago but never finished. He got kicked out, and now he’s in jail on a drug charge.

The State Attorney’s Office declined to identify the inmate or provide further details about the charge or the sentence he faces, stating that the matter is being handled in juvenile court and shielded under Florida law.

Standing next to the inmate was Jacksonville Sheriff’s Corrections Officer Eric Wesley with a stern warning for the young men in the crowd.

“He was just like y’all,” he shouted.“You don’t think you’re going to come to jail because nobody does, but the reality of the matter is they’re bringing them in everyday — juveniles, 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old men, just like you.”

It’s a bit of a scared straight tactic. The rest of the class contains some other cautionary tales, some more strong words and some bleak statistics: About 30 percent of the class of predominantly black men are likely to end up “across the street,” Louder tells them. That’s where the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office jail is located.

Cleaning the slate

It’s the last part — the statistics — that Andy Turner III said struck him.

“That’s what really stuck out to me,” he said. “I have this opportunity to go to school and actually get my education so I felt like they actually helped me to understand that a little bit more.”

Andy, 17, who attends Douglas Anderson School of the Arts, was referred to the program following a petty theft incident. He was out with Louder and a handful of other juveniles on a recent weekend morning for a community service project — another component of the program.

“We’re going to go out to the homeless people, show them a little bit of love for the holidays,” he said, walking toward the Northbank Riverwalk overpass.

There are other activities entailed in the diversion program as well. Most of them vary depending on the juvenile and his or her needs, Louder said.

“They may have to have drug treatment. They may have to have alcohol treatment. They may need anger management treatment. They may need mental health treatment,” he said.

All juveniles in the program are required to take go on a jail tour and get some period of counseling, which can span from a few months to a year, depending on the offense and family situation, he said.

Louder appears to provide his own personal touch to it as well. On the walk with Andy to the Northbank overpass, the two trade a joke or two, discuss the teen's interests in visual arts. Louder asks him about possibly lending his artistic talent to another community project.

Louder, said his own path to helping troubled youth was inspired by a mentor.

"It kind of became a mission of mine ever since a man deposited into me and spent some time with me, and he changed my life and he never wanted anything back besides me doing what he did for me," he said.

The State Attorney’s Office diversion program has a six-month success rate between 82 and 85 percent, according to data from the State Attorney’s Office. Data on the juveniles in the program beyond six months was not immediately available.

Andy’s father Andy Turner Jr., who was with him Saturday, said he doesn’t think most people in the community are even aware the diversion program exists. He wasn’t.

“In my opinion, it’s something that needs to be out there because youth are suffering everyday,” he said. “Young black men are dying everyday because of things that are appealing to them in the street.”

As for Andy III, he expects this will be his first and last brush with the justice system. He’s got too many other things planned. He wants to get a scholarship to the University of Central Florida or the University of Florida to study graphic design or creative writing.

And once he completes the program in the next few weeks, he’ll be on his way without a criminal record.

“Now, I’m at a point where I see what I need to do,” he said. “I need to prove not only to myself but I got to prove to my loved ones that I have changed and I am going to make a difference.”

You can follow Rhema Thompson on Twitter @RhemaThompson.

Rhema Thompson began her post at WJCT on a very cold day in January 2014 and left WJCT to join the team at The Florida Times Union in December 2014.