Pennsylvania program gives juvenile offenders a fresh start

Hundreds of kids in Luzerne County go through the criminal justice system each year, and a county program has been successful helping get their lives back on track

FOX56 talked to employees with the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office about the "Youth Aid Panel."

It is a program, started in 2011, that allows juveniles with low-level offenses to have their criminal records wiped clean without going through the court system. Instead, the county reaches out to them and they are paired up with volunteers.

They're assigned career-building tasks and projects that hold them accountable for their actions. That could include community service, job shadowing, and more.

Each year nearly 600 minors in Luzerne County go through the criminal justice system.

"We just want to make sure the mistakes they make today, don't affect their future," Kristen Zearfoss, Community Outreach Coordinator with the District Attorney's Office, said.

We talked to a parent who says the program changed her son's life. Diana Johnson, a mother from Luzerne County, says her son was 17 when he was reprimanded for underage drinking.

"It was a shock to me...I started doing the research and then hearing what could happen, losing his driving license, having this record, and all of those terrible things, a huge fine," Johnson said.

Her son went through the three-month Youth Aid Panel program nearly a year ago. He completed it thanks to the help of volunteer, Kit Foley.

Diana Johnson and Foley reunited Tuesday when they spoke with FOX56.

"I think we've learned that you have to listen. That you have to really give the youth and their parents an opportunity to speak. We really work hard at trying to help them understand that they made a mistake but that doesn't mean they're not a good person," Foley said.

Foley has been a volunteer since the beginning. Since 2011, more than 715 juvenile offenders have completed the program.

The District Attorney's Office is looking for more volunteers. To find out how you can help, call Kristen Zearfoss at 570-820-6335 or click here.

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