From the Hip: Lorinda Youngcourt, Director, Department of Public Defense

A promising program helps young people take charge of their lives

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As public defenders, we’re often representing people who have already experienced considerable trauma in their lives, people in need of much more than a good criminal defense lawyer. We represent people who are homeless and mentally ill, who are poor and jobless, who have few resources and little support.

That’s why I’m so pleased when we’re able to take steps that help to address some of the underlying issues that bring a person into the criminal justice system. And one such program just got a new lease on life. ROYAL – Raising Our Youth as Leaders – was started several years ago by the Society of Counsel Representing Accused Persons, a former public defense agency and now a division within the Department of Public Defense. After a six-month hiatus, during which we retooled the program, ROYAL is once again ready to address one of our most pressing needs – supporting youth of color who are considered at high-risk of reoffending.

The program is geared towards youth who are already in the juvenile justice system, young people the Department of Public Defense is representing. It is premised on the principles of positive youth development – providing the services, opportunities, and support young people need to take charge of their own lives and break some of the cycles that traditional aspects of the criminal justice system largely reinforce.

Pictured are ROYAL Program staff at a recent training. From left are Ericka Turley, project manager. Myeah Gibson, youth development lead, Jonisha Hall, case strategist and John Hairston, case strategist. Not pictured is Gregory Ban, case strategist.

Pictured are ROYAL Program staff at a recent training. From left are Ericka Turley, project manager. Myeah Gibson, youth development lead, Jonisha Hall, case strategist and John Hairston, case strategist. Not pictured is Gregory Ban, case strategist.

With three case strategists and one youth development lead, ROYAL provides young people with intensive case management, service opportunities, job development skills, family support, and more. We’ve contracted with Therapeutic Health Services to provide these direct client services, while one of DPD’s senior project managers – Ericka Turley – provides program oversight. A grant from the county’s Department of Community and Human Services pays for the program.

ROYAL’s staff members are all deeply committed to youth development and are skilled in working with young people. And like me, they see promise in what ROYAL can do for youth.

“I’m excited. I really believe in what ROYAL is all about,” Myeah Gibson, ROYAL’s youth development lead, recently told one of our staff members. “I love working with youth, especially youth of color.”

John Hairston, who has worked for ROYAL for the past four years, said he believes the program’s restructuring has strengthened it. “The shift will mean that the program is more inclusive of other communities. And I think that’s a good thing,” he said.

I want to commend Society of Counsel for initiating ROYAL several years ago and for all the work several of their employees – now county employees – undertook to get it off the ground. Among them are Debra Baker (now on special assignment with the county’s Human Resources Division), social workers Tom Dunne and Ben Kaplan, office manager Stephanie Sellers, and attorney Elinor Cromwell. I also want to acknowledge Roger Freeman, a beloved public defender and state lawmaker who passed away on Oct. 29, 2014; he, too, helped start the program and came up with ROYAL’s clever and inspiring name.

The folks running Raising Our Youth as Leaders are doing so on the shoulders of those who came before them. I have every confidence that this new iteration of the program will be strong and successful. And I believe there is no greater calling than to help young people on a difficult path find a better and healthier way to chart their direction in life.