There is no such thing as a typical day at the Youth Assessment Center in Champaign, according to director Jonathan Westfield.
The center, which has been operating since 2013, works with young people in the community who exhibit “troubling behavior.” Law enforcement, schools or family can refer them as an alternative to prosecution and in hopes of preventing future delinquent activities.
“It’s a diversionary program that keeps juveniles from being fully immersed in the juvenile court system,” Westfield said. “It allows them to see the impact of their actions directly and indirectly — not only how it affects them, but how it affects the victim, their family and the community as a whole.
The center, which operates under the Champaign County Regional Planning Commission, had a budget of $234,038 in 2017, which has increased from $225,000 in 2016.
Since 2013, there have been 2,444 referrals to the program, according to agency records. That means that about 5 percent of people under the age of 18 in Champaign County utilized this service, according to July 2016 data from the Census Bureau.
However, nearly a quarter of the juveniles were “re-referred” due to successive offenses.
In an article by the News Gazette published this past June, Champaign Deputy Police Chief Troy Daniels said that the 2017 crime statistics showed an increase in repeat offenses from previous years, and that the CPD and the YAC were working together to decrease that number.
UI professor: Program more effective than incarceration
Mikhail Lyubanski, a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois, studies restorative justice programs like the Youth Assessment Center. He said these programs reduce the tendency to re-offend even more than incarceration.
“There is also evidence that the earlier the [restorative justice] process happens, the better the outcomes (i.e., it is better to have it before trial than after trial but after trial is better than after incarceration),” Lyubanski said in an email.
Westfield said the juveniles in the program could learn how to offset the actions and behavior that may have brought them to the point. He said they can become more resilient to criminal temptations and learn how to become more stable members of the community.
Juveniles who complete the programs at the center can avoid going to court and appearing in front of a judge. In addition, they don’t have their names associated with the criminal incident for which they are referred. Westfield said instead of taking a year to address an issue, it can be over with in a matter of months.
“The program is voluntary but takes an understanding [the clients] need to grow from this,” Westfield said.
Since 2015, peer court has been one of the most used interventions. Peer court is a program where the offender is able to explain the crime to an adult judge and a jury of their own peers who ask questions about the offender and the crime to determine how best to restore justice.
A little less than half of the referrals since 2015 utilize the program. Peer court allows the center’s clients a glimpse of how youth their own age view their actions.
“I think adults may have one viewpoint, but when it comes to working with youth, hearing the opinion of their peers can have greater weight and have more of an immediate and lasting impact,” Westfield said.
Lyubanski acknowledges that there can be some drawbacks to restorative justice programs, especially when it comes to finding a balance between employing professionals and community involvement.
“As we gradually move toward mainstreaming restorative justice, we also will have to sort out how to deal with the problem of credentializing and licensing restorative justice professionals,” Lyubanski said over email. “Many in the restorative justice movement (including me) are against such credentializing because it will take away the right to do this work from many community practitioners and create conditions where restorative justice becomes a set of skills to be learned rather than a philosophy to embrace and a relationship to develop.”
New director, new location
Westfield became director of the center in July. He said he just been observing and is hesitant to implement any changes or new programs yet.
“My time here in the first year is set to learn about the program, and not to immediately come in and make changes. To learn where our strengths are, what areas we can make improvements in. Once that is determined, we’ll go from there,” Westfield said.
Despite that, one big change is coming for the center. They are looking for a new location, and are interested in an in-kind donation, whether that is monetary or the donation of a facility.
There is no wide consensus as to what causes issues of delinquency, and Westfield believes that it varies from client to client, from socioeconomic means to simply a desire to commit a crime.
“If I did know [what caused delinquency], you’d be reading my book about it,” Westfield said. “Could it be based upon this inherent need that ‘I need this to survive?’ I don’t know.”
Westfield said there is no typical way to deal with clients, so each client is handled on a case-by-case basis.
There are two case managers that clients can work with at the center. With an average of 584 referrals per year, that’s a ratio of one caseworker to 292 cases.
Usually, case managers take the juvenile’s skills into consideration, and work with clients to help them be successful. Westfield compared it to coaching a sport.
“People should have to be coaches at some point. As a coach, you realize that the players you get aren’t at the same skill level … you have to assess what they have, and you have to develop strategies on how to work with them all so that they all improve,” Westfield said.
Through this individualized approach, the center hopes to assist clients in staying out of the juvenile system, as well as from returning to them.
“We always work with the hope that this will be the first time and last time [they work with us]. Sometimes we fall short,” Westfield said. “but we always put forth the effort to work with them and make sure they don’t come back … from what I’ve seen recently, most do complete it successfully.”