Related to: Youth Justice

Unlike many youth who get involved in youth justice systems, Rochelle hadn’t ever been in trouble before getting arrested for joyriding one Friday night in late 2022. She was an honor roll student in a private school.

“I had a pretty good track record,” she says. “I was just out with the wrong people that night.”

After being held for the weekend in detention – an experience she describes as shocking — Rochelle was referred to the Healing Futures diversion program operated by the Youth & Self-Empowerment Project (YASP), a community-based organization in Philadelphia.

For the first two months she met weekly with program co-manager Felix Rosado and other members of the YASP team. “We would talk about what happened. We would talk about how it happened. We would talk about avoiding it happening next time.”

After eight weeks, YASP convened a restorative conference where Rochelle met with the man whose car was taken and read him the apology letter she had written. The car owner read Rochelle a statement as well. “He told me that there were no hard feelings. It was a hindrance in his life, because he works all the way over in Jersey and lives in Philly. He was like, ‘those ubers were really expensive. I needed my car.’

“‘When I heard how young you were, I thought, I hope they don’t have to go to jail,’” Rochelle recalls the man saying. “‘I’m happy they have programs like this.’”

After this conference, Rochelle began working with homeless people facing substance abuse issues once a week in one of the toughest sections of Philadelphia. The choice was suggested by Rochelle’s mom, Mechelle, and agreed upon by all participants in the conference as part of Rochelle’s restorative plan.

“I picked it because Rochelle, she went to private school, we had our own house, was fairly sheltered,” Mechelle explained. “I very much wanted her to see another part of life, what can happen when you make bad choices, when you are in hard circumstances.”

“It was definitely scary,” says Rochelle. “I had to learn how to reverse a drug overdose while I was there, how to turn people on their side, the signs of a drug overdose…. Just the smells and the way people were living out there.”

Rochelle admits that she didn’t appreciate the program initially. “At first it didn’t really set in. It didn’t change me,” she says. “It was more like, everybody is telling me what to do, and I don’t want to do it.”

But over time, Rochelle has grown to appreciate her diversion experience.

Had she not been given the opportunity to participate in diversion, “I don’t think I would have graduated high school,” she says. “And I definitely wouldn’t be thinking about college if I would have a record.”

“Being on house arrest” – her term for probation supervision – “I wouldn’t have wanted to go back to school. Because if you’re on house arrest, they’ll call you when you’re still in school… I wouldn’t want to be clocked like that.”

“The best thing about the program is that they gave you a community to go to,” she says. “Felix was really supportive. My second week of community service he didn’t even tell me he was coming out, but he came out and helped me with my community service and checked up on me. I appreciated that. It made me feel like I’m not alone. Even to this day Felix will text me or call me and ask me how I am, if I’m getting in trouble or not.”

The program “puts more people in your corner,” she explains. “It gave me somebody you can always talk to if anything happened.

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