BY ELLAH FOSTER
Implemented at the Carmel Police Department in 2009, the Juvenile Diversion Program is a two-day class for minors who commit small offenses, such as disregarding restrictions placed on first-year drivers, marijuana possession and curfew violation. The Carmel Sandpiper covered the benefits of the program a few years ago, focusing on how it aided troubled teens.
The draw for minors is that the charges are erased from their records once they complete the program, but recent attendees have questioned the validity and effectiveness of the two-day class.
Clementine Chamberlain, a 2019 Carmel High School graduate and former president of a school community service club, got pulled over for expired tags with another minor in her car without having had her license for a year.
“When he pulled me over, he told me I had two options,” Chamberlain explains. “He said that he could send the ticket to the court and that I could go in front of the judge, or I could just go to this class, do some community service, and we could rip this ticket up.”
Another incident that landed two teens in the Juvenile Diversion Program was ding-dong ditching. Three CHS students—two minors and one legal adult—were ringing doorbells and hiding out for the homeowners’ reactions, but when the police showed up, they ran. In legal terms, they evaded arrest. The minors, current CHS seniors, say they were able to attend the program to avoid charges. Chase McCrystal, however, was 18 and therefore a legal adult, leading him to consequently face a misdemeanor charge.
A 2019 CHS graduate, McCrystal explains that he paid $4,000 to hire a lawyer and was prepared to fight the charge in court, but a few weeks after the incident, the particular officer dropped the case and the 18-year-old never had to appear. The two minors, on the other hand, were still required to attend the program.
The class is alternately run by both retired and active officers including Carmel Police OfficerGreg Johnson, Sgt.Jeff Watkins and retired Los Angeles Police DepartmentOfficer Frank DiPaola. The first class is dedicated to learning about choices and consequences, while the second covers the concept of being a leader versus a follower.
Chamberlain recalls spending a portion of the Juvenile Diversion Program talking about topics that didn’t pertain to what she had done wrong, but rather broader issues among teenagers.
“I think they wanted the class to be interactive so that they could teach us something,” the CHS grad says. “Nobody in my class was into drugs or partying crazily, but they just assumed we were.”
The program has a heavy focus on driving-related crimes, and the teenagers watched videos of people in car accidents, according to the first of the two minors required to attend the program.
“But there was nothing about how the class could help me or [my friend],” the student remarks.
Chamberlain and the two seniors all report that God and religion were frequently talked about in the Juvenile Diversion Program.
The first senior involved says that the attendees were told to find God and that he would help throughout their lives, pointing out that the retired officer cited how it had helped him personally do good. Similarly, the second CHS student explains that the leader of the program told him to take a long walk on the beach with God.
In conversation with the Sandpiper, Sgt. Watkins is adamant that the program doesn’t push any certain religion on the students.
“The teachers have religious backgrounds, but we are not preaching a specific religion,” Watkins says. “Fundamentals like integrity, honesty and respect all play a part in religion. Your faith is your moral compass, so we try to incorporate the origins. We are not pushing religion on anybody.”
Yet retired officer Frank DiPaola presents himself as a strong Catholic and explains that his faith is one of the reasons he teaches the Juvenile Diversion Program.
“I bring God into it because I’ve worked with thousands of kids, and it’s led to many epiphanies,” DiPaola says. “Kids that had no desire in God started going to church. I’m not proselytizing for the Catholic faith, but I think you need to get God in your life. You can go to any church you want.”
Chamberlain recalls a teacher retelling the story of Saint Maria Goretti as a sort of cautionary tale. According to MariaGoretti.com, the girl was just 11 when an older boy Alessandro Serenelli threatened to kill her if she didn’t have sex with him. She refused, shouting, “God does not allow it!” and “It is a sin!” while he stabbed her. Though she died the next day, her last words were that she forgave Serenelli. The murderer reports that he never penetrated her, thus meaning Goretti died a virgin. She was sainted 48 years later in 1950.
This was just one part of multiple conversations in the program about abstinence and having sex before marriage, according to Chamberlain.
Additionally, DiPaola explains how he brings up real life and often personal examples to teach the students about decision-making.
“I always go over the example of, say, you’re a guy and you want to have sex with this girl or something else you shouldn’t do,” DiPaola says. “Analytically think about it and realize that it is wrong. A lot of people choose based on emotion.”
Chamberlain recalls feeling uneasy and awkward during these conversations.
“Not only is that not anyone’sbusiness, but it doesn’t have to do with the law either,” the CHS graduate explains. “It made me uncomfortable to have this man I didn’t know telling all these teenagers what they can and can’t do based on his religion.”
The curriculum of the class emphasizes how a small infraction or wrongdoing can turn into a much bigger issue with the snowball effect.
“The overall message is the same, no matter what the minor does,” Officer Johnson explains. “Take marijuana, which can be the gateway to something harder. You start a small criminal record with marijuana possession. [The class] is to recognize that you’ve done something wrong, no matter whether it is marijuana, speeding or skateboarding, and it has the propensity to lead to bigger crimes.”
The program also covers the most common crimes that minors attend for, like traffic violations or alcohol and drug charges. The teachers holds discussion about the topics, as well as show videos and occasionally have the students write an essay.
DiPaola notes that the videos often show the graphic aftermath of deadly car accidents. Other videos include prison surveillance footage that shows fights or even stabbings.
But Watkins stresses that this program is not ‘Scared Straight,’ although they do bring in guest speakers and play shocking footage to the attendees. He explains that it is more designed to show the possible outcomes of what can happen when minors make those critical decisions to speed or drink and drive.
DiPaola relates most of these crimes back to the overarching moral code as a way for attendees to know wrong from right.
“A lot of kids these days, and even adults, don’t have a good moral code, which is what keeps you straight,” DiPaola explains. “Otherwise, why not rape, rob and pillage?”
After minors have completed the program, the Carmel PD assigns a varying number of community service hours, dependent on the behavior and crime, according to Watkins. The community service activities vary from beach cleanups to washing police cars to helping with community events. Watkins and Johnson say they often send attendees with paid city workers.
For Chamberlain’s community service, she was driven to Devendorf Park by a city worker to single-handedly take down all the winter decoration lights. Though the two CHS seniors attended the Juvenile Diversion Program for the same crime, they were assigned a different number of hours, with the first student reporting that he never even completed all of his.
“We just had to go back to the police station and sweep off cobwebs, put covers on the stray dog kennels and clean stuff,” the first senior recalls. “I was assigned more hours, but I don’t know why.” He goes on to explain that it was a waste of time and felt as though the community service was only to officially meet a requirement.
“I don’t think that it bettered the community at all,” the second CHS senior concludes. “I think it bettered the police department for sure because everything was swept and cleaned up. The class did its job of never wanting me to get in trouble again, but that is only because I never wanted to go to that class again.”
Yet Watkins, Johnson and DiPaola all share success stories about the program and the different ways in which it has helped young adults to choose right from wrong.
The Juvenile Diversion Program also requires attendees to stay out of legal trouble for 60 days following the class. If they fail to do so, their case will proceed to court.
Recently, the Juvenile Diversion Program has only had to meet a few times a year with typically fewer than 10 students.