The OC Young Adult Court is adding a new component to prevent recidivism – the Orange County Register

If not for the OC Young Adult Court program, 26-year-old Joseph Mwamba would likely have ended up back in prison.

Since graduating from the program in February 2021, Mwamba has attended Pomona Nursing School, obtained his Certified Nursing Assistant License and has worked with children with autism. He also serves as a peer mentor in the Young Adult Court study.

“It was a wonderful experience,” said Mwamba.

The OC Young Adult Court is a cooperative program with the Orange County Superior Court for first-time offenders between the ages of 18 and 25. Those who participate in the program and graduate may have their felony charges dismissed or reduced to a misdemeanor.

In addition to holding a participant accountable for the offense committed — which includes keeping track of court appearances and reporting regularly to a probation officer — the Young Adult Court also provides personal and professional tools, such as Securing stable housing to prevent relapse.

The program is aimed at men who commit petty crimes. Individuals who commit a violent crime or sexual offense are not eligible.

Since its inception, 19 people have completed the program, including Mwamba.

And the program recently added a new component – in-house mental health services.

In July 2021, the Orange County Health Care Agency awarded UC Irvine a $10.1 million grant to expand the Orange County Young Adult Court study. A research team at UC Irvine, led by psychology professor Elizabeth Cauffman, is tracking the graduates’ findings.

The grant focuses on the mental health and behavioral issues some of the men in the program are experiencing while also providing clinical support, Cauffman said. Previously, Young Adult Court participants were referred for therapy; Now, with this funding, services can be provided in-home to treat things like depression and PTSD.

“Now we can better address their needs so they can get the support they need to get their lives back on track,” Cauffman said.

Preliminary data, Orange County Superior Court presiding judge Maria Hernandez said, suggests some of the barriers to accessing mental health services include transportation, unstable housing, and alcohol and drug addiction. All of these “pointed issues” can “become obstacles that lead people to make bad decisions,” Hernandez said.

“With the (psychiatric) services available to us and enhanced by the grant, I think it will make a tremendous difference in outcomes for the young people involved,” Hernandez said, noting that addressing the core issues for the Access to mental health matters can make the community safer by helping to reduce recidivism or reoffending.

Mwamba said he wished he had those services when he was in the program.

“People … on probation we go through a lot of things that we can’t talk about with other people,” Mwamba said. “It really means a lot to have a counselor that you can talk to to express how you’re feeling and to have someone who will listen to you.”

Providing mental health services to participants is “a good idea,” Mwamba said, since some of the program’s participants “can’t talk to anyone except their parole officer.”

Calling the young adult court a “treatment program in a court system,” Hernandez said this approach is an individually tailored, multidisciplinary, and collaborative effort that helps address the factors that led to the crime in the first place to prevent recidivism.

The Young Adult Court was piloted in Orange County in August 2018 and funded by a grant from the National Institute of Justice. It is one of the few such programs in the country.

The court was founded by Cauffman; Hernandez; Zachary Rowan, assistant professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University in Canada; the Orange County Parole Department; the Orange County Public Defender and Defense Bar; the Orange County Attorney’s Office and the Orangewood Foundation. Community partners such as the Orangewood Foundation provide housing, education, employment and counseling assistance.

The court, Cauffman said, is “an opportunity for people who have made mistakes to be held accountable, but in a manner appropriate to the development.”

Under the program, participants must attend all court hearings, meet with their parole officers, enroll in rehabilitation programs, find stable housing, go back to school or work, and even “ensure they are productive in the community,” Cauffman said . After 18 months to two years in the program – and after they have fulfilled their obligations – only then will the judge dismiss or reduce the criminal charges.

“When I got out of jail I didn’t have a lot of money to buy food, but when I go there (OC Young Adult Court) they give me breakfast, lunch and things to take home,” he said Mwamba.

The program helped him meet his basic needs, including soap and a toothbrush, but also apply to school and improve his credit score.

Mwamba, who has just been promoted at work, wants to continue ABA (Applied Behavior Analysis) therapy for autism.

“It’s just a great job. Helping others is what I really enjoy doing,” he said. The OC Young Adult Court is adding a new component to prevent recidivism – the Orange County Register

Dais Johnston

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