Profiles in Justice: Faith Harris
Faith Harris is a native of Philadelphia and has been employed at the Philadelphia District Attorney’s Office (DAO) in Juvenile Diversion Services for nine years. She attended Penn State University and graduated with a major in Criminal Justice and a minor in Sociology.
Prior to joining the DAO, Harris worked as an Assistant Criminal Profiler in the Philadelphia Sheriff’s Office Warrant Unit, assisting investigators on open cases and communicating with prosecutors to determine next steps.
“It was interesting work, but I knew I wanted to be at the [District Attorney’s] office, and applied to the DAO and started working as a Victim/Witness Services Coordinator for the Juvenile Diversion Unit in 2011,” she says.
In 2014, Harris moved into a Program Coordinator position with the unit and in 2016 moved into a Senior Program Coordinator position. In January of this year, Harris became the Program Manager for Juvenile Diversion Services.
As Program Manager, Harris works to support the Director of Juvenile Diversion Programs and supervises the three program coordinators within her unit who each have 20 to 50 young people in their caseload.
“The only types of cases that would preclude them from participating in the program would be weapons cases, sexual assault cases, and ones that involve serious injuries,” Harris says, describing how she reviews cases on an individualized basis to determine eligibility for diversion versus court proceedings.
“Are we able to take youth from intake to completion, and if so, what needs to happen in between? What individual coordinators need to be involved, what kind of panel do we want to send them to, what kind of programming do we need to connect them to, and if we don’t have the programming, how do we connect the young people to these [services]?” she continues.
Harris is actively engaged in helping to expand the programming options available to youth participants, as well as determining “how diversion works to [advance] the ideas of juvenile and criminal justice reform. [We’re] the gatekeepers to keep kids from going into the system. But if we’re going to stop them from going into the system, do we have [the structures] in place to actually service them in a developmentally appropriate way?”
COVID-19 has posed challenges to Juvenile Diversion Services, and Harris has adapted programming accordingly.
“It was difficult for some of our kids who were already in programming, because they were used to face-to-face [interactions]. The children would ask, ‘What do you mean I can’t go to my music session? What do you mean, I can’t play hockey or basketball? Wait, I’m halfway through my conflict-resolution group session, I don’t want to stop,’” Harris explains. Juvenile diversion is now primarily operating in virtual spaces — out of five programming options, four are virtual. The Mile-Up program, operated in partnership with Students Run Philly Style, works to transform young peoples’ lives through running and mentorship, and is the only face-to-face youth diversion option currently being offered. Beyond the Bars, another partner program, “focuses on providing positive and safe spaces where youth who have been impacted by violence or the incarceration system can express themselves [through music],” Harris says. To prevent spread of COVID-19, instruments and laptops are now provided for participants to receive one-on-one instruction virtually from home. One-on-one conflict resolution has also been occurring throughout the pandemic. Now more than ever, programs like juvenile diversion are critical in reaching vulnerable young people who could become potential victims or perpetrators of gun violence.
“Gun violence is tragic, it’s heartbreaking, and the numbers right now are reflecting trauma and unresolved issues going on in our communities,” Harris adds.
“COVID-19 really shed a light on the suffering that was going on in under-resourced [communities]. It opened our eyes to a lot,” she continues. “We’ve always known that our kids need to feel safe in their neighborhood, have advocates and mentors they can talk to, people who can give them hope for the future. Kids need more of our time, attention and love than ever before.”
When she was 19, Harris’ 18-year-old cousin was murdered. This tragedy was a pivotal moment that continues to motivate the work she does with system-involved youth. Looking forward, Harris hopes to contribute to the expansion of juvenile diversion to support rehabilitative and restorative approaches to young people that will prevent them from becoming involved with the criminal legal system as adults.