Soares looks to involve community in youth sentencing

Soares looks to involve community in youth sentencing

Albany County District Attorney David Soares announced a series of criminal justice reform programs Tuesday at the Albany County Judicial Center that will help young offenders at various phases of their life avoid criminal convictions and instead, rehabilitate and give back to the community.

The “Clean Slate” initiative focuses on reclamation, restoration, and redemption for young offenders. Soares said that the program expands upon current reform efforts run by the District Attorney’s Community Justice and Outreach Office.  

Soares has experienced scrutiny from the community and former supporters for his actions towards young criminal offenders in the past. As The Alt has previously reported, Soares has garnered a reputation for being harsh toward young offenders. The case of 16-year-old Marquis Dixon received national attention when Soares initially charged him as an adult. Dixon had been accused of stealing a pair of sneakers and was sentenced to nine years in prison.

The case outraged the community and Dixon soon became the face of the “Raise the Age” movement, causing the court to reduce his sentence. However, Dixon quickly returned to jail for violating his parole and was recently arrested again for allegedly threatening his mother with a knife. His case not only sparked controversy around Soares, but also on how the criminal justice system handles young offenders.

The success of the “Raise the Age” campaign and Soares’ dedication to revisiting his old promises is a positive step in changing the trajectory of many young incarcerated individuals. The initiative is also gaining support from the public, such as from Jamaica Miles, the Capital District’s lead organizer of Citizen Action of New York.

“With the state’s passage of Raise the Age, we’ve moved in the right direction towards reducing incarceration of young people,” Miles told The Alt. “We’re glad to see District Attorney Soares take a step further in diverting youth away from jail and providing alternatives to incarceration.”

Soares announced that this initiative not only provides other options to serving time in prison, but will also help previously incarcerated individuals go back into the real world and be successful.

“There are individuals that engage in certain behaviors in their youth and cannot appreciate the consequences of those behaviors as they move forward. They experience limitations in employment and academia,” Soares told The Alt. “These individuals committed certain offenses in their youth and now they are parents and can’t advance their careers in order to better provide for their children. As Americans, we believe in paying our debts but I don’t think those debts should exist in perpetuity.”

In his announcement, Soares said that the “Clean Slate” model was created because of the repetition of crimes within young age groups that he has witnessed during his time in his office.

The first part of the initiative, called the “Reclamation” Felony Youth Diversion Program, is for young adults aged 16-24 charged with certain nonviolent felony offenses. Soares told The Alt that acceptance into this program will be handled on a case-by-case basis. According to the Albany County District Attorney’s website, eligible participants will have the opportunity to take accountability for criminal actions, repair harm to victims, and become contributing members of the community, without having a felony criminal conviction or time served in state prison.

There is currently a pilot program in place with nine participants aged 17-21 and each participant has a unique plan for success. This program will continue after “Raise the Age” is implemented in Oct. 2018, when offenders aged 16 and 17 will appear before a special Youth Part. The “Clean Slate” program will then work with offenders above the age of 18.

What’s become apparent is that we need to develop a more complementary set of services for young adults,” Soares told The Alt, regarding what the program has shown thus far. “It seems like we have services that really direct their energy towards very young or very old individuals, while there is a middle population that is in need of additional attention.”

“Re-entry” efforts, which are the second part of the initiative, will work with community agencies to provide resources for formerly incarcerated individuals and their families. Soares hopes this will help these individuals re-enter the community. The Outreach Office is currently open for community members to use their resources, such as their computers to send resumes and find employment.

The third part of the program is “Redemption” expungement efforts, which aim to eliminate the negative stigma surrounding felony convictions. This effort is ongoing and hopes to clear the criminal records of non-violent and low-level offenders who have displayed positive rehabilitation. The Albany County District Attorney’s website said that a formal process is set to be developed by courts in Oct. 2017.

Soares called for community action in order for the program to succeed. “Where my policy changes and control over the District Attorney’s involvement in the court process end, community action must begin,” said Soares in his announcement. “In order to evolve, we must involve.”

Community members are encouraged to volunteer to sit on the Diversion Board, assist with youth mentoring, and to help with managing youth programming needs.

We cannot engage in reform with a swipe of a pen and legislation,” Soares told The Alt.  “Real reform requires real people doing real work and that’s what the Clean Slate project is about.”

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