Peer Diversion Court
By Everton Prospere
Volume 3 Issue 1
November 7, 2022
Image provided by Nassau County
Are you interested in law and criminal justice? Perhaps you have an innate desire to help other teenagers in Nassau County? Peer Diversion Court, a restorative justice program that offers a second chance for young criminal offenders, creates a unique experience for the entire courtroom.
A decade-long special youth court program run through Nassau County’s District Attorney’s Office, the Peer Diversion volunteers and adolescent offenders all are under eighteen years of age. The young malefactors, charged with a real crime, face two options from a family court judge: face a real trial with the possibility of being found guilty with jail time and, in turn, have a permanent criminal record, or face a jury in Peer Diversion Court. If young offenders choose the latter, they admit guilt, but face a much lighter sentence, and a record that will not affect their futures.
Nassau County’s Peer Diversion Court Coordinator, Michael Jasmin, and the Special Counsel for Adolescent and Juvenile Justice, Arianne Reyer, divide the program into two parts, the volunteers/interns and the defendants. The volunteers and interns apply for the program and undergo an extensive screening process. If accepted, these volunteers attend training sessions to understand court proceedings. After successfully completing the training, the volunteers can serve as either a bailiff, court clerk, defense advocate (a simpler version of a defense lawyer), or community advocate (a simpler version of an adult court prosecutor). The defendants, or the criminal offenders, are briefed before their assigned court date by Mr. Jasmin and Ms. Reyer and begin community service to ensure their commitment to the program.
A typical court case takes two days during a week. Tuesday, the preparatory day, focuses on the defendants and the advocates. The advocates read a police report that provides personal information about the defendant, the crime committed, and any evidence or witness statements. After reading the police briefing, the defense and community advocate sit with the offender and begin to discuss the case. This provides a chance for the defendant to explain their story without a police report that can possibly consist of vague information or a biased witness statement. Thursday, the trial day, emphasizes an environment about the defendant. While many youth courts may focus solely on the volunteers and their criminal justice experience, Peer Diversion Court highlights the adolescent offenders.
The court proceeding begins with an explanation of the case by the judge, usually a former volunteer that has outgrown the program, the bailiff, and the clerk. After the defense and community advocates make opening statements, the defendant is called to the stand to testify. After questioning from the defense and community advocates, the court gives the jury and witnesses in the room the opportunity to ask questions. The jury consists of former defendants who must complete a certain number of jury duties as part of their sentence. This, in turn, forces the jury members to reflect on their own case and engage in other cases that may have similarities to their own situation. After the questioning from all parties, the court goes into recess and the jury begins their deliberations, which may take anywhere from five minutes to over thirty minutes. Once the jury enters a decision, the court resumes its session and a jury member reads the disposition. Regardless of the sentence, the defendant will have to serve a number of community service hours and jury duties. In addition, the community advocate often asks for more requirements, such as a letter of apology or therapy. After the jury announces a decision, the court comes to a close, and the defendant must immediately begin their sentence.
The exhilarating experience at Peer Diversion Court makes all parties, whether volunteers or offenders, connect through the restorative justice system. As a volunteer for Peer Diversion Court, this program has changed my perspective on the world as I have participated in cases on marijuana possession, unauthorized use of a motor vehicle, and assault. However, whether I work on a case with a defendant from East Meadow, Garden City, or Hempstead, a commonality exists among all the offenders, the desire for a second chance and to improve on their lives. If you have an interest in Peer Diversion Court, you can fill out this application and contact Arianne Reyer at email@example.com.