WAMU/Matthew S. Schwartz
streets to the barracks, Giron says D.C.'s diversion program has
helped him get his life on track.
Third in a three-part series: Paying at-risk people to stay out of trouble is the most controversial part of a new D.C. crime bill that also proposes counseling and other services to prevent repeat offenses. But a similar program — minus the money and the violent offenders — is already in use in D.C., with the blessing of the District's top prosecutor. The diversion program at the Department of Human Services gives nonviolent juvenile offenders a second chance.
Christopher Giron walks through the campus of the Capital Guardian Youth Challenge Academy, near Fort Meade in Maryland. It’s a military-style academy run by the National Guard. The 18-year-old, originally from Fort Totten in D.C., has successfully completed the program here, earning a GED.
He’s a long way from where he found himself a year ago.
“I was skipping school, I was smoking, I was in the streets, I was really heavy into guns,” Giron says. “I was always just fooling around, thinking the streets were the way.”
Giron used to hang with a gang in Northwest Washington near Petworth — the Street Thug Criminals. He says he carried a gun at all times, never sure when someone from a rival gang would come after him. Stolen cars and drugs were part of his world, too. But it’s skipping school that finally caught up with him.
One day, there was a knock on his door.
“My mom was disappointed,” says Giron. “She was like, ‘Oh, you’ve really done it now.’”
But it wasn’t a police officer at the door; it was a case manager with the diversion program, and she was there to make Giron an offer. Either he could go to juvenile court and maybe even get a GPS ankle monitor, or he could choose diversion — he could get off the streets and really work hard to turn his life around.
Giron chose diversion. The program gives low-level offenders six months of mentors, counselors, and supervision. Social workers recommend different courses of action depending on how much trouble you’ve gotten into, and how much rehabilitation you need.
For people more at risk for violence — like Giron — social workers might also recommend six months at an out-of-town high school program run by the National Guard.
It was hard for him at first, but after a man-to-man talk with a worker at Capital Guardian, he soon realized what was at stake.
“He’s like, a man has to do what he’s gotta do,” Giron says. Giron realized: “All I’m doing is bringing disappointment to my mother and parents. I have to figure out what I want in life. Because being in the streets always isn’t the answer.”
After that talk, Giron said he started to straighten up. “I put more effort into the program to change. Because if you don’t put forth the effort to change, there will be no change.”
Increased use of diversion
The diversion program began in mid-2014, when it was used mostly for truancy offenses. But it didn’t really take off until last year, when the newly elected D.C. Attorney General Karl Racine looked at the number of young people the office had been sending to court.
Our program really is only asking kids to do what they are kind of required to do as a young person.
— Anthony Moffett, social worker
“I was very concerned that our office was prosecuting too many cases and that those cases did not result in the kind of rehabilitative services that our juvenile justice requires,” Racine says.
So Racine dramatically increased the number of young people he steered into diversion, especially for delinquency offenses — crimes like shoplifting and vandalism. He boosted the number of referrals from about four per month to more than 20.
The vast majority of kids who go through diversion finish the program successfully. Of those, 92 percent have not been re-arrested. Racine plans to push for more funding to further expand the program.
“Diversion literally can help turn around the direction of a young person's life,” Racine says.
Diverting serious offenders from crime is one element the D.C. Council has included in its new crime bill, which still needs a second vote. Racine calls that measure it a “cousin” of the existing youth diversion program.
Both programs are based on the principle that “violence and trauma and stress and kind of chaos unfortunately is endemic to parts of our community,” Racine says. “In order to break the cycle of violence, you’ve got to be far more creative in looking at it as an epidemic — an illness that can be treated.”
Treating the illness
The first step in diversion is for the youth to meet with a social worker like Anthony Moffett. Moffett tries to get to the root cause of a problem. For instance, one youth was put into diversion for littering. But it turns out there was a deeper issue.
“We assess on every different level,” Moffett says. “So it's not so much like, ‘Why were you throwing sunflower seeds in the Metro?’ It's very much, ‘What's going on in the home?’ And we identified that this youth was really depressed and had resentful feelings for having a father that that wasn't there.”
Now, because of the diversion program, that youth and his family are going through therapy together.
Sometimes kids are offered after school enrichment programs, like boxing classes, to give them structure and keep them off the streets.
“Our program really is only asking kids to do what they are kind of required to do as a young person,” Moffett says. “We’re asking them to go to school, not get arrested, and listen to their parents.”
Christopher Giron, who successfully completed the Capital Guardian program, now works there as a peer mentor — helping other troubled youth turn their lives around. Giron credits the diversion program for giving him the help he was too scared to ask for.
“We want help, but few of us are willing to go out there and look for help,” Giron says. “I know the path I was taking wasn’t right. But I wasn’t man enough to say, 'Hey I need help.'”
When he graduated the program, his case manager told him she was proud of him. That simple gesture meant so much to Giron.
“I never had anyone appreciate the potential I had to do great,” he says. “I never actually had anyone say that they’re proud of me for doing something positive.”
That’s actually one of the reasons he decided to work so hard at Capital Guardian, he says, to become the man he knew he could be.
“I wanted to show and prove people wrong,” Giron says. “I was always in a position where people were doubting me. Teachers were doubting me, counselors were doubting me, even principals doubted me at one point. And I honestly felt like, OK, I’m going to stop with the doubt. I’m going to sit down and prove them all wrong one day. And I did.”
Giron is saving money for college, and hopes to major in criminology.