The Lead

‘They need to be loved on’: Philly program offers youthful offenders a second chance

By: - March 9, 2022 11:31 am

‘There’s no monetary value that can compensate what we do for the youth,’ YAP volunteer Dwayne Harris said (Philadelphia Tribune photo).

By Brian Saunders

PHILADELPHIA — Buddy Osborn, the senior pastor at The Rock Ministries, remembers being on a juvenile prison block in 1993 when 70% of the 28 kids he saw were in jail for homicide.

“A light bulb went off, and the Lord sent me into Kensington, a place where I was born and raised to start Rock Ministries,” Osborn said. “And what I’ve come to find out was that that the thousands of kids that come through these doors, they have one thing in common, you know, they have a heart, and they need to be listened to. They need to be loved on.”

On Monday, Osborn’s church opened its doors for District Attorney Larry Krasner’s weekly gun violence briefing, and highlighted the Youth Aid Panel (YAP) Juvenile Diversion Program.

The YAP Juvenile Diversion Program was started in 1987 to hold youth offenders accountable while offering them a chance to turn their lives around through their communities and without judge involvement.

Michelle Neil is the Victim and Witness Coordinator of the District Attorney’s Office’s Juvenile Unit. For the past 11 years, Neil has served as a secretary for the YAP in Philadelphia’s 24th Police District.

Neil said that she loves giving back.

“We meet every second and fourth Thursday of the month from 7 to 9 p.m.,” Neil said. “The Youth Aid Panel is an alternative diversion program for first-time offenders to face a panel of volunteers from the community instead of a judge and at the same time acknowledge that there are consequences for their behavior. As panelists, we gain insight into their offenses and develop appropriate resolutions.”

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Some of the things done within these panels include research on a crime committed, a letter of apology to the victim and community service.

Faith Harris, the diversion program manager, said that the program is a gem because it allows community volunteers within the same neighborhoods as these youths to impart mentorship.

“It allows us to partner with the community so that we can impart wisdom, understanding forgiveness, love and to connect young people and parents to resources, programs, and services so we can redirect them and help them to have a better future,” Harris said.

Like most programs, the YAP had to adapt a virtual model during the pandemic. However, Harris said she was delighted that panelists still showed up and showed out to help these young people.

“During that time period of a year and a half, we were able to successfully divert 75 young people and to help them go through the program,” Harris said.

As COVID-19 restrictions begin to ease, the program will shift back to in-person. There are seven panels throughout the city.

Brooklyn Johnson is a victim-witness coordinator in the DA’s Office. She has been volunteering in the 18th Police District with YAP for four years. According to Johnson, it is liberating to help youth get back on track and help deter them from committing future crimes.

“What I enjoy most about it is building a strong connection with the youth I’m able to mentor,” she said.

Dwayne Harris is a single father of six who questioned why he would get involved with mentoring other people’s children when he stumbled across the YAP at a community event.

Unbeknownst to him, he would interact with a young man to forge a mentor relationship.

“There’s no monetary value that can compensate what we do for the youth,” said Harris, who volunteers in the 35th Police District. “We save their life. We redirect them. When it comes from the heart, you have a passion for it. It’s about how do we redirect, how do we save another human.” Harris has worked with several of the youth who have changed their lives and gone off to college, including one young man he says is in his third year at Georgia State.

All of the volunteers urged more people to get involved with the program.

“This is the Philadelphia initiative, that we all come together as a panel to make sure that we can be supportive to someone that we can actually change lives,” Harris said. “I’m here to say this because I’ve seen it.”

Brian Saunders is a reporter for the Philadelphia Tribune, where this story first appeared

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