Philly DA hopes to bring more bilingual mentors into program for troubled youth

Michelle Neal speaking at The Philly DA's office press conference talking about the Youth Aid Panels diversion program on March 7, 2022. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

Michelle Neal speaking at The Philly DA's office press conference talking about the Youth Aid Panels diversion program on March 7, 2022. (Tom MacDonald / WHYY)

The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office is looking for help in its effort to give young people a second chance.

The Youth Aid Panels, or YAP, are part of a diversion initiative started in 1987, to give young people who have been accused of minor offenses a chance to start over without a criminal record. During the COVID-19 pandemic alone, the DA’s office said 75 cases were kept out of the court system because of the YAP program.

Faith Harris, who is program manager of the DA’s Juvenile Justice Division, also heads up the YAP program. She said the program is designed to “impart wisdom, understanding forgiveness, love and connect young people to resources” that they need to start over.

Currently, the panels are in North, Northwest, Northeast, and South Philadelphia. Officials said they would like to take it citywide.

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The goal of the new effort is to recruit more volunteers, especially those who speak Spanish, Creole, and Arabic, said DA Larry Krasner.

First Assistant DA Robert Listenbee worked on juvenile justice for the Obama administration. He said the office has 23 separate panels trying to bring about change with young people, but the Youth Aid Panels are designed to have people work one-on-one with the children and hopefully change their lives for the better.

Listenbee said he took the wrong road in life at a young age and had a relative help him find his way. The YAP program is designed to do similar work with surrogates, who help young people stay out of the justice system and move towards a good life without criminal activities.

Michelle Neal has been a victim-witness coordinator for almost two decades at the DA’s office. She believes in the program, having worked with young people in the 24th police district. Neal believes that convincing kids there are consequences for their behavior and developing appropriate resolutions to their offenses helps facilitate positive outcomes.

The effort to get more people involved in the program was held in Kensington, which has been known to be an area with the worst drug activity in the city. Pastor Buddy Olson of The Rock ministries said that giving young people a creative outlet can help them find a way out of the drugs and crime that plague the neighborhood where he offers services.

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Krasner said if more people who speak languages other than English step up for the program, which requires a commitment of between 5 and 10 hours a month, he believes the entire city will benefit.

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