Make a difference

Tired of hearing about neighborhood problems caused by kids and crime? Want to make a difference?

Philadelphia District Attorney Seth Williams has put out a call for adult volunteers to serve in their neighborhoods on Youth Aid Panels.

“This is the perfect opportunity to support your community,” Williams said in Tuesday’s announcement. “Just a few hours a month will have a tremendous impact on the city.”

Volunteers try to help show first-time juvenile offenders “productive life choices” as alternatives to street life and the criminal justice system.

According to Williams’ office, 31 panels operate throughout Philadelphia -- at least one in every police district -- and volunteers are extensively trained by the District Attorney’s Office.

In 2010, 517 juveniles entered into and successfully completed the program, performing more than 5,279 hours of community service and paying restitution for damages. City-wide, 185 volunteers donated 5,565 hours of their time.

The Youth Aid Panel program is open to first-time juvenile offenders charged with misdemeanors or minor felonies who would otherwise go before a judge in Juvenile Court. The offending juvenile must first admit involvement in the charged offense and then enter into a contract with the panel.

The contract could require anything from a community service project, written essays and restitution to workshops on the impact of such crimes as retail theft, conflict resolution and auto theft.

One panel member is assigned to monitor each juvenile’s progress and adherence to the contract until its terms are fulfilled. If the juvenile fulfills the contract terms, the case never goes to court and the arrest record is expunged. If the juvenile fails to fulfill the contract, the case returns to Juvenile Court.

Williams said the program gives first-offenders a chance to avoid a criminal record but also holds them accountable for what they have done.

According to the District Attorney’s office, Youth Aid Panel volunteers now handle a significant portion of more than 6,000 juvenile cases brought each year into the city’s Juvenile Court system. Ninety percent of juveniles accepted into the program fulfill their contracts and Williams said the “overwhelming majority will never again return to the justice system.”

People interested in volunteering for a Youth Aid Panel may call the District Attorney’s office at 215-686-7600, 215-686-6305, or 215-686-6310. Ask for Youth Aid Panels or leave your name, address, and phone number.

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