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Mayors Challenge winners target justice, homeless, energy

October 29, 2018
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In this Friday, Oct. 26, 2018, photo, Philadelphia Police Sgt. John Ross discusses the Police 9th District's juvenile holding cell in Philadelphia. Bloomberg Philanthropies announced the winners Monday of the U.S. Mayors Challenge that asked cities to develop innovative solutions to their biggest problems that other cities could copy. Philadelphia plans to build a juvenile justice hub designed to make contact with police less traumatic, keep more children out of the criminal justice system and connect at-risk juveniles with intervention services at a crisis point that could change their lives. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The idea for a juvenile justice hub started with a handful of Philadelphia police officers who knew the way they interacted with juveniles had to change. The judges of the Bloomberg Philanthropies U.S. Mayors Challenge are willing to bet their idea will work.

Bloomberg announced the nine winners Monday of the challenge that tasked cities to develop innovative solutions to their biggest problems that other cities might copy if they are successful. Each winner will receive $1 million in prize money to implement the ideas.

Los Angeles plans to develop a program where people build homes on their property and rent them to the homeless. Georgetown, Texas, plans to become the first energy independent community in the country by installing solar panels and battery storage on its buildings.

With its prize, Philadelphia plans to build a juvenile justice hub, where youth will be taken upon arrest instead of being taken to the police districts that are built to process adults. The juveniles can spend up to six hours in the small, cold, dank and antiquated cells, with minimal contact even with police— partially to prevent them from incriminating themselves accidentally.

The hub will be designed to make juvenile contact with police less traumatic, but police and a host of other partners are hoping the center also can keep more children out of the criminal justice system with faster connections to diversion programs and referrals for at-risk juveniles to intervention services for housing, food, mental health counseling and other areas of need.

Captain Stephen Clark oversees the city’s 24th police district, based in the Port Richmond neighborhood near the epicenter of the city’s opioid epidemic. He was one of the police officers who came up with the seed idea to address how juveniles are arrested, and he has told everyone on the planning team for months that Philadelphia’s idea would be chosen.

“Where I work now, there’s a lot of violent crime. Our shooting victims tend to have significant arrest records dating back to their youth, so ideally also we can intervene sooner so they don’t become that statistic of a shooting victim,” he said. “I didn’t join the department to watch people die.”

City officials including the mayor, who ultimately chose the idea to submit, recognized the potential impact of the hub as well.

“You only need to see a 10- or 12-year old, sitting alone and scared in a dank jail cell because he did something dumb like shoplifting, to understand that a child’s first contact with the justice system is crucial, that this Juvenile Justice Hub is needed,” said Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney.

Sgt. John Ross with the department’s office of strategic planning also helped develop the hub idea. He said Philadelphia police arrest nearly 4,000 juveniles a year, and of those, about 2,300 are charged and end up in the criminal justice system.

For others, charges are either dropped or they are eventually sent to a diversion program through the court that can include substance abuse treatment, anger management or other interventions. Ross said the hub and the services it will help connect children and families to will hopefully drive down both numbers.

Officials said finding a way to connect kids and parents with intervention and diversionary services without going to court will save those juveniles the added trauma and stigma of being in the system.

For the Bloomberg judges, Philadelphia’s commitment to other criminal justice reforms — reducing its jail population, revamping its bail process, increasing diversion programs— signaled the city would work to make the idea of a juvenile justice hub work.

“There are so many issues we are increasingly putting on the shoulders of mayors, whether it’s climate change or addressing opioids or providing for affordable housing,” said James Anderson, head of government innovations programs at Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“An aspect of Philadelphia’s idea that I think spoke to the selection committee is that this originated with frontline police officers who recognized the need to do something different with their interactions with these young people at these critical life-changing moments. The fact that the city could hear that from the frontline and turn into a winning solutions is commendable.”

The other prizes were awarded to Denver to place air quality sensors around schools: Durham, N.C., to create incentive programs to get drivers into public transportation; Fort Collins, Colorado, to help landlords make low-income housing safer and more energy-efficient; Huntington, West Virginia, to embed metal health professions with first responders to address the needs of opioids users; New Rochelle, New York, to implement virtual reality technology during public planning processes; and South Bend, Indiana, which will help low-income and part-time workers find reliable commuter transportation through ride shares.

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