Community Content: Whitehall fostering community approach to youth diversion

Mike Crispen
Guest columnist

Although the Safer Whitehall Strategic Plan is made up of many complex components – with highly detailed goals, strategies and techniques to improve safety in our community – the plan is defined by one culture statement: “The Division of Police holds itself responsible for exceptional policing and believes in a community-oriented, mission-driven form of service.”

To embody this culture statement means taking a step back and evaluating practices and programs to ensure that they are designed and implemented with the specific needs of the Whitehall community in mind.

Mike Crispen is chief of the Whitehall Division of Police.

Recently, the Whitehall Division of Police Community Operations Bureau did such an evaluation of our Police Initiated Diversion Program, which aims to reduce recidivism rates for Whitehall youths interacting in the juvenile-justice system.

In partnership with the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas Division of Domestic Relations and Juvenile Branch, the Whitehall Division of Police is enhancing the Police Initiated Diversion Program by refocusing the program on fostering positive community connections.

Currently, the Police Initiated Diversion Program starts when a juvenile is charged with a nonviolent misdemeanor crime, such as theft, curfew or trespass.

To qualify for the diversion program, the individual normally is a first-time offender or has a limited criminal history. With a guardian’s permission, the individual can voluntarily choose to participate in the diversion program or be formally charged and continue through the court system.

Successful completion of the diversion program means the youth is not formally charged and will not carry a criminal record forward as he or she makes the next moves in life.

The Whitehall Division of Police refers five to six eligible juveniles to the Police Initiated Diversion Program per month. These youths may be assigned to write a paper, attend a class or complete 15 to 30 hours of community service. This community service can be served anywhere in Franklin County and, up until this point, has not been served in Whitehall.

The Community Operations Bureau has teamed up with the juvenile-diversion staff to improve the program by better integrating it back into our own community.

Our school resource officers and the community operations sergeant now will work in tandem to identify eligible youths charged with misdemeanor crimes and to invite them to participate in the program. Should they move forward, the youths will be matched with an officer who acts as a liaison to the Franklin County Diversion Office and who assigns a certain number of community-service hours to be served with Whitehall houses of worship, in parks or other community facilities. The officer will have regular check-in points to ensure the youths are completing their service and are getting everything they need to succeed.

As you may imagine, this kind of one-on-one access to a local officer helps the youth build positive relationships, and even lifelong mentorships, with the officers. In turn, the connection to Whitehall service organizations allows the youth to foster other local relationships and to grow a sense of pride and investment in the community. 

We’re looking forward to enhancing our diversion program because we know the value extends far beyond one youth and one specific case. Diversion programs hold youths accountable for their actions with a proportional consequence, but more importantly, they reduce stigma around the justice system and help improve relationships between our youths, police officers and community.

I look forward to reporting on the success of this program and others at our next Safer Whitehall Town Hall.

Mike Crispen is chief of the Whitehall Division of Police.