Johnson County expands criminal charge diversion program for minors

The grant will be given to United Action for Youth to expand its preexisting pre-charge programs.


Matt Sindt

The Johnson County Board of Supervisors listens to speakers at the Johnson County Administration Building Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2022.

Alejandro Rojas, News Reporter

Johnson County is expanding a program that offers some minors who are facing charges alternate paths instead of Juvenile Court Services.

The county received a $49,800 grant from the state that Iowa City-based nonprofit United Action for Youth will use to expand an existing pre-charge program by hiring a diversion coordinator.

The program gives resources to kids to keep them out of the juvenile system, Talia Meidlinger, United Action for Youth director of intervention programs, said. The United Action for Youth, which is located on 1700 S. 1st Ave. in Iowa City, currently offers a pre-charge program for shoplifting in Johnson County.

“If a young person under the age of 18 gets picked up for shoplifting, and it’s their first offense of being picked up for shoplifting, they are given the opportunity to have that charge diverted,” Meidlinger said. “What that means is they get a letter in the mail from juvenile court that says, ‘Hey, if you attend this class at United Action for Youth, it’s as if that mistake never happened.’ It will not show up on your record.”

The diversion coordinator will oversee the program to ensure the processes are clear and well organized, Meidlinger said. They will also make referrals to Linn County Ladders for Disorderly Conduct Charges.

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Laurie Nash, Johnson County youth and family service manager, said the funding provides an exciting opportunity to improve the existing program to better serve youth in the county.

“What we’re really excited about with this opportunity to expand diversion is that not only will we reduce the number of youth who have a juvenile court record, but will also increase the number of youth who are aware of community based resources,” Nash said.

Nash said the county offers the program to any youth who meets its requirement of living in Johnson County.

“There’s no income criteria. To be eligible, you have to live in Johnson County,” she said.
Under the current program, the court mails letters to the families of the children charged for their first offense to take part in the program.

When the families come for the program, United Action for Youth will sit with the families and talk them through the different services available to help.

United Action for Youth employees speak separately with the youth and their families following the course. The parents discuss parenting strategies and youth brain development.

Nash said the current funding from the state will last until December 2024, with the intention to continue the program past that with a different source of funding.

“Hopefully, what we’ll see is decreased juvenile court services because we’re diverting more kids, and then instead of putting money into after the back juvenile court, we can put that money into the pre-charge diversion, which is cheaper and better for the youth,” Nash said.

Johnson County Supervisor Jon Green said he hopes the program can be an example for other counties in the state.

“We know, statistically speaking, that for youth who come into contact with criminal justice, that leads to a whole suite of reduced outcomes, and so anything that we can do to limit those sorts of contacts is going to be something I’m probably going to be excited about,” Green said.