Most understand the value of school and education. It provides a strong foundation of knowledge that enables children to learn skills for better-paying jobs. But traditional approaches do not work for all children, which means they could lose interest. If juveniles start skipping school, they tend to fall further behind. The more time they miss, the more likely the students feel that they cannot catch up with fellow students in class, so they turn to committing crimes. This downward spiral leads to more severe crimes and penalties as they get older.
The program creators saw a clear track from truancy to time in the criminal justice system, and they wanted to break it up. To keep kids engaged, organizers recently launched a new diversion program alongside Mesa County Valley School District 51’s suspension and expulsion programs. Dubbed the “Lighthouse Project,” the program is located at Colorado Mesa University’s Campus in Grand Junction. It is in coordination with the local district attorney’s office.
Rehabilitate instead of punishment
The program creators point out that the court system was designed for adults, but it is less effective for getting them back on the right track. Along with the rehabilitative benefits, it is also less costly than the enforcement and incarceration of juveniles. It is also less expensive than going through the criminal justice system, the cost of which may be beyond the means of the children’s parents.
The program teams the youth, parents and a diversion coordinator. Rather than judge and punish, the program uses a contract that involves school attendance, employment, participation in extra-curricular activities, curfews, public service, payment of fees or restitution, restorative justice. Counselors find that the crimes are an outgrowth of underlying issues, so it also includes such services as drug screenings, mental health assessments, help with addiction, help with anger management, and family counseling.
Using federal dollars, the program is identities and pays campus students work-study dollars to tutor, mentor and otherwise help keep the truant students on track with their learning. Once the students fulfill the contract, the case is expunged from the juvenile’s record. If they do not satisfy the agreement, their case returns to the juvenile court system.
A new form of justice
While the Lighthouse Project is now a pilot program, it illustrates how the justice system is looking to focus on alternatives to enforcement and punishment. Many district attorneys and criminal defense attorneys understand that alternatives to convictions in court can positively impact juveniles. These programs improve the chances of creating law-abiding members of society and lessen the burden on the criminal justice system. It is a win-win for all involved.