Young Adult Court Gives Nonviolent Offenders 2nd Chances


Damon Strong poses for a photo at the Douglas County Criminal Justice Center on March 24, 2021. He joined the Judicial Branch in 2011 as a community based resource officer. (David Golbitz/The Daily Record)
By 
David Golbitz
The Daily Record

On a chilly March morning in a courtroom on the fourth floor of the Douglas County Criminal Justice Center, Judge Shelly Stratman took part in one of the more joyous aspects of her job.

She warmly congratulated four participants in the county’s Young Adult Court for completing the program and gladly dismissed the charges against them.

One of the graduates that day is Jay, a young Black man who was arrested for writing fake prescriptions, a Class IV felony with a maximum penalty of two years in prison and a $10,000 fine.

“I have a lot of goals in life, and having a felony on my record would prevent me from getting into places where I would like to be, or holding me back, or making it a lot tougher than it should be,” Jay told The Daily Record, which agreed not to publish his full name to protect his privacy.

Jay, 21, was placed under house arrest in early 2020 as he began the YAC program, a problem-solving court designed to provide an alternative to prison for young adults ages 18-24 who have been charged with

nonviolent felony offenses. In order to be accepted into the program, the offender is first required to plead guilty to the charges they face.

Then they begin the first phase of a three-phase curriculum that, if completed, results in a clean slate as the charges against them are dismissed.

“Having the opportunity being presented to me — this being expunged from my record, rather than just going to regular court and leaving it on my record — it was the only option for myself and for my family, because they wanted me to not be in this situation and to not have it on my record,” Jay said.

Damon Strong, the chief probation officer for District 4A, said that the young adults in that age group are often making mistakes.

 “They’re making those spontaneous decisions and they don’t understand the long-lasting ramifications of those decisions,” Stong said.

Young Adult Court gives participants a second chance. They can’t change what they did in the past, Strong said, but they can “change the trajectory moving forward.”

“Eventually we would like our clients to be, in a word, self-sufficient, meaning that they’ve learned some life skills to navigate life’s perils and make good decisions,” Strong said.

YAC offers a support system “that they may never have known to exist,” Strong said.

“One thing that we recognize is, obviously, they’re not always going to be in this program and so just providing those resources and supports that they can have for the rest of their lives can have a profound effect,” Strong said.

When he first began the program, Jay had a difficult time adjusting to all the new rules he now had

to follow.

“When you come in, it’s going to be really hard, because it’s something you’re not used to,” Jay said. “Because when you come in and your behavior and how you’re thinking, it’s going to be irrational and you’re not thinking right.”

Part of YAC involves meeting regularly with a counselor, which wasn’t always easy for Jay.

“There’s gonna be some dark days and things you have to deal with, things you might not want to do, but it’s going to help you in the future,” Jay said.

The YAC has a 25% recidivism rate, which means 3 out of 4 graduates do not commit another offense within three years of completing the program.

YAC participants are asked to secure employment and attend classes on relapse prevention. They have to check with YAC staff every morning by phone and there are frequent drug tests and therapy sessions. It can be a lot, but it’s better than the alternative.

“As I look back on it, I’m glad that I followed through and stayed true to myself and took in everything that everyone had to offer to me, because all the information was really valuable into getting me here,” Jay said. “I don’t think I could have got here without that information and the people who supported me.”

Jay wants to go back to school and study psychology. He wants to be a psychiatrist or psychology professor, which he knows will take time, but after spending more than 12 months in the YAC program, he knows he can do it.

“I had a problem with school,” Jay said. “I had a problem with work. I mean, you have to do things you don’t want to do. But it’s all worth it, getting to the end goal.”

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