Janesville and Rock County officials want to bring a diversion program to a local middle school, with the goal of getting children the services they need sooner without going through the youth criminal justice system.
Rock County Youth Justice Supervisor Penny Nevicosi said such a pilot program ideally would be up and running by the start of next school year.
But she stressed “We’re still in early days.” There have been some planning meetings across the county, Janesville Police Department and the Janesville School District.
She also has been pulling together data, such as the number of referrals and types of offenses, to help guide their efforts.
A middle school is the target because as kids get older, it might be too late to have as much impact, she said.
“Our desire is to offer youth an opportunity to develop some skills, to use some of their undesirable behavior as a way to have teachable moments verus bringing them into the youth justice system,” she said.
The number of kids arrested in Rock County has fallen precipitously over a decade, according to data shared at a meeting of criminal justice officials in October.
The data accounted for 5,264 youth arrests in Rock County in 2008. That number dropped almost every single year until it reached 1,780 in 2018.
Despite the drop, racial disparities persisted.
The Gazette reported in June that Black kids in Janesville public schools had been cited, arrested and referred to juvenile authorities at a rate more than seven times higher than that for other races.
Nevicosi said reducing racial disparities is not be the “main driver” of this diversion program, although it is certainly part of other youth justice efforts in the county.
“I do think in looking at the data that it will be an intervention,” she said, putting emphasis on the word “an.”
“We need others,” she continued. “It will be an intervention to help address that (racial disparities).”
Nevicos described how it works now: School resource officers have discretion about incidents involving students. They can give the kids a warning, give them a ticket or refer them to juvenile court intake, for example.
Intake workers from youth justice then meet with the kids and their parents or caregivers and decide on next steps. That can look like a deferred prosecution agreement, which opens a case until conditions are met and the case is effectively dropped.
The matter could also be dismissed outright in the beginning or it could move onto the juvenile court system, Nevicosi said.
“So this initiative kind of puts a buffer in between law enforcement and juvenile court intake,” she said.
This new diversion program would include an assessment to determine what the child’s needs are. Then there could be conditions, such as counseling, skill-building exercises, community service or an apology letter.
If the conditions are met, she said, the referral could go away. If not, then the kid would go forward with juvenile court intake through the human services department.
Nevicosi said she wants fewer referrals—“(So) that we’re letting the right kids come through our door.”
She said higher-level services should be directed toward high-risk and maybe some moderate-risk children because research shows low-risk children going through the system can end up worse than when they started.
Janesville police Lt. Charles Aagaard said it would be “excellent” if kids could be connected with services without entering the criminal justice system.
“Our main goal is that we want to see them get the services that they need,” he said.
Nevicosi said this effort would be much more difficult if all the relevant agencies weren’t working together toward the same goal.
She said other similar efforts have taken place across the state, as well.
She said the yet-to-be-named diversion program is the product of momentum from other initiatives, such as a Rock County neighborhood specialist in the Fourth Ward whose role is to help families and children at Wilson Elementary School.
And if this new program comes into existence and is a success, Nevicosi said they could look at expanding it to other schools.
“We know that if kids are entering our youth justice system, that it can change the trajectory of their life—and not always for the positive,” she said.
“We are after those young kids that have made errors, and we want to leverage that in a way where they’ll learn something from their lesson in a natural environment in the school.”