In 2017, a 19-year-old Bend man was charged with assault for tossing a poop-emoji pillow at an elderly woman shopping in a local department store.
The young man said the act, which his brother filmed, was part of an online challenge, his former public defender, Andrew Doyle, explained.
“It was kind of a silly case,” Doyle said. “I never argued he didn’t injure this person, who had some pre-existing conditions. But he was just a dumb kid.”
Doyle’s client was charged in the adult justice system, and Doyle ultimately convinced a jury to acquit him. But the client’s brother, who was under 18, was prosecuted in the juvenile system, and was therefore eligible for a quieter conviction diversion process.
“I remember thinking, if he had been a juvenile, his case would have probably been handled completely differently,” Doyle said of the older brother. “He could have applied for diversion, for one thing.”
The case made such an impact on Doyle, it inspired a new pilot program at his next job, with the Deschutes County District Attorney’s office: a diversion court for young adults with minimal records accused of breaking the law in minor ways.
“Young adults ... often make poor decisions, and some of those decisions result in young people entering the criminal justice system,” District Attorney John Hummel wrote to local judges May 26. “Unfortunately, after that has occurred we are likely to see them return to the criminal justice system due to the unintended consequences of an arrest record.”
Because human brains don’t automatically stop developing at age 18, the “emerging adult” program aims to give second chances to people 18 to 24 arrested for low-level offenses of the kind that can follow a person around for a lifetime and lead to more involvement in the justice system.
Two years after the pillow-throwing case, Doyle attended an office retreat at his new job with the Deschutes County District Attorney’s Office. One activity was a “Shark Tank”-themed contest to devise and pitch a specialty court, like one of the county’s existing family-drug and mental health treatment courts. Doyle was paired with fellow Deputy District Attorney Mara Houck, and in about an hour, the two had devised a framework for the emerging adult program.
Doyle and Houck’s pitch won that inter-office competition, but more importantly, it got the attention of their boss, Hummel.
A nine-month pilot version is now scheduled to start July 1. It will enroll 12 young adults who’ve been arrested or otherwise cited with a crime.
According to the district attorney’s office, the three-year recidivism rate for the average 400 cases a year in Deschutes County that involve defendants aged 18-24 is 60%.
Hummel stressed the new program will not be open to young people with long criminal records or those accused of serious crimes, including sex crimes and Measure 11 offenses, which qualify for automatic strict sentencing in Oregon. A number of specialty courts already exist in Deschutes County, including a DUII diversion program, and treatment courts for mental health issues and drug offenders with families.
The emerging adult program will be available only to people who don’t qualify for other specialty courts.
Beyond that, a panel of prosecutors, victim advocates and staff will oversee referrals, including reviewing the alleged facts of a case.
Participants will be assigned a case manager whom they must meet with regularly. They must develop a personal intervention plan and take part in a restorative justice “circle” with trained facilitators. And they must periodically appear before the emerging adult volunteer panel to discuss their progress.
If they complete their intervention plan within six months, their cases will not be charged. Participants who reoffend or fail to progress will be removed and their cases turned over to the traditional criminal justice system.
The idea isn’t completely novel. Other jurisdictions have second-chance specialty courts dedicated to young people. But a novel aspect of the local pilot program is that it will be available before formal charges are filed with the court. The thinking is that once a charge is filed, it can remain on a person’s criminal record for life.
The fact the program will be offered before charges are filed allows for more flexibility, because some charges have associated mandatory sentences.
Bobbin Singh, executive director of the Oregon Justice Resource Center, said he supports what he’s seen of the nascent program. He thinks being offered before charges will lead to better outcomes for participants.
“Once you charge an offense, you then connect it to sentences that are attached to those charges,” Singh said. “So I think it’s important to recognize at the outset that there are developmental factors that exist. It’s the reason we keep youth in a juvenile system that is fundamentally different from how we resolve cases in the adult system.”
Singh believes the diversion court for young offenders is rare but gaining popularity.
“We are seeing more and more state and individual jurisdictions start to look at this population differently,” he said. “It’s a policy that actually makes sense, that’s consistent with brain development science.”
The program isn’t intended to be easy, Doyle said.
“When you’re talking about the mechanics of it, it’s a lot easier to just plead guilty and sign a piece of paper and be done with it,” Doyle said. “With emerging adults, there’s so much more that the person will be required to do.”