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LOUISIANA

Board - not court system - deals with youthful offenders

Jared and Amy Creel weren't without their frustrations over the destruction of their family's mobile home. But the Deville couple was happy the youths responsible for it were dealt with by the Neighborhood Accountability Board rather than the traditional juvenile court system.

"I didn't know such a program existed," Amy Creel said of the diversionary program for delinquent youths. "But I'm glad that it does. Those two kids are, I think, good kids who got caught up into peer pressure. They had never been in trouble before that we know of, and they are definitely sorry for their actions."

Nearly a year ago, three Rapides Parish youths destroyed the mobile home in rural Deville owned by Amy Creel's grandfather. The couple had planned to move into the mobile home with their two small children. The damage made the structure unlivable and was so severe it couldn't even be fixed.

Two of the youths were referred to the Neighborhood Accountability Board - which was formed more than a year ago to deal with crimes just like this, said Daphne R. Robinson, Rapides Parish assistant district attorney and coordinator of the program. "The Neighborhood Accountability Program is a program we started within the District Attorney's Office as a diversion program for young people that are low-level first-offenders," she said. "We were funded by the MacArthur Foundation to look at programs in the DA's office that divert kids out of the court system.

"We know the younger the offender is, the less serious the crime is and the more contact that young person has with the court system, the more detrimental it is to them. So we wanted to try to come up with something that would benefit young people in that particular position. So we came up with the idea of the Neighborhood Accountability Board."

Deciding punishment
Robinson and other board members traveled to St. Louis to observe and study what program the community was operating there and to see how that type of program would work here.

The local eight-member board meets on the second Tuesday of every month and hears the juveniles' cases involving crimes ranging from trespassing to criminal damage to drug offenses. The members have been empowered by the court - sworn in by 9th Judicial District Court Judge Patricia Koch as officers of the court - and have the authority to render a disposition.

The board listens to the juvenile offender, the offender's parents and the victim - if the victim chooses to be part of the process. The board's responsibility isn't to decide guilt or innocence; it is to decide what punishment is appropriate. "The child has already admitted to their own culpability participating in the crime," Robinson said. "So it isn't a question of whether or not the board decides guilt or innocence, it is more about how guilty were you and what should your sentence be based on that."

The juveniles who damaged the trailer belonging to Creel's grandfather were before the board in February. "We're interested in hearing your side and if you've accepted responsibility for this and understand the seriousness," board member Issac Williams said to one of the youths during the meeting.

The 13-year-old offender said he'd "matured so much" since the incident and would never do anything like that again. "I feel terrible about the whole thing," the boy said. "I regret it. I would take it back if I could. I disobeyed my parents completely."

Williams said he joined the board because he wanted to do his part to help youths from getting involved in the juvenile justice program. "When kids start getting involved in crimes like this, it is important to give them an opportunity to identify the behavior and work on their decision-making skills rather than allowing them to get into the system," he said.

Consequences for actions
Board member Rodessa Metoyer said if she could help change the life of just one kid, the work with the program would be worth it. "This process helps these youth realize that for every action there is a consequence," she said. "I think it is working."

One of the most important aspects of the program for board member Irene Hobbs is questioning the offenders. She said it is important to force the youths to think about what they did, why they did it and the consequences of what they did. This, Hobbs said, will help the youths to not become re-offenders. "These youth have to understand early what impact crime has on them, their family and the community," she said. "If they come here first, hopefully we won't see them again in the juvenile justice system."

Robinson stressed the benefits of the program for the community as a whole, the offender and the victim. One of the immediate benefits for the community is cost.

Although the MacArthur Foundation funded the program to research others, the operations of the board have been done on volunteer time on the part of Robinson and her staff with the DA's office and on the part of the board members. And every juvenile who is kept out of the court system is a tremendous savings for taxpayers.

"We are very thankful to the MacArthur Foundation for their funding," Robinson said. "... I want the community to know, though, that this isn't a program that is totally funded by the foundation. It is one that the foundation gave us a start on, but it is something that we feel is important enough to do, that we are willing to go and volunteer our time. And we want to thank the members of the board. We can't thank them enough for the service that they have given. They have been so committed to this process."

The biggest benefit to the juvenile offender is staying out of the court system and not getting a juvenile record. Robinson pointed out that the offenders who go through the program have less serious crimes, and if there wasn't an alternative, they would be mixed in with youth offenders committing crimes as serious as robbery and attempted murder.

And the victim benefits by having a voice in this restorative justice program, Robinson said. "The idea is to bring the victim in and give the victim a voice so the victim can say not only how it harmed them financially, how their property was destroyed or how they were harmed, but also how it affected them emotionally," Robinson said.

That was one of the biggest draws for board member LaRunda Hobbs Pierce. "I was very interested in the concept of restorative justice," she said. "There's an opportunity for the victim to come out and talk about how they felt about being offended." She said the program gives the youth offenders a chance to avoid being another number in the system so they can correct bad decisions early on.

'One bad decision'
The Creels said they appreciated the opportunity to voice their concerns before the offenders and the board. "I think that it is great that the kids don't necessarily have to be subjected to going before a judge and through the court system when they are not really the type of individual that will be spending a lot of time in the future in the system," Jared Creel said.

"Especially they are kids that just made one bad decision. I've made some terrible decisions in my life; so have a lot of other people. I think it is a good that these kids can still see the repercussions for their actions but not necessarily be thrown into the harsh reality of court. It's kind of like you get that one second chance."

A 12-year-old Pineville boy went before the board during the February meeting - it was his last session. He'd been caught along with some other youths vandalizing property belonging to the Boy Scouts of America. He'd been ordered to do community service at the Holiday Village Fire Department, write letters of apology to his parents and Boy Scouts, and to write a 1,000-word essay.

"It's been a positive experience for us," the teen's mother said before the final meeting. "I've watched him grow up from all this and realize that there really are consequences for bad choices. This process has also given us a chance to make things right without having to expose him to the court system."

The boy described the process as a little scary and overwhelming, but said he learned a lot, especially about decision-making and consequences.

Program's success?
Rapides Parish District Attorney James Downs said the program seems to have been a beneficial one so far. The goal, at this point, is to look at results of the youths who go before the board and compare that to the traditional court system and other alternative programs to see which has the best results. "If you start off with a child who is a repeat offender with several delinquent actions, that behavior isn't going to magically stop before the child is 17," Downs said. "If they are not redirected before that point, they will become adults enmeshed in the justice system. And once they get a felony record, there a lot of doors that start to close."

Research has shown that rehabilitation among juveniles is much more successful than that of adults, which is one of the reasons there is such an emphasis on diversionary programs like the Neighborhood Accountability Board.

It will take at least another year until enough significant data has been collected to determine if the program is a success or not, Downs said, but the early signs are that it is making a dent in issues with juvenile delinquency.

Robinson said she thinks the program has helped tremendously, but the progress is incremental. The board has had more than 20 children come before it with a good racial and economic mix. "I think the progress is small," Robinson said. "I think we are making a small dent in the number of kids that come to court, and we're making a small dent in the crime. But I think the greater goal is that it is creating a greater dialogue in the community.

"Now I have the members of the board who are advocates and understand that we need to do something about juvenile justice issues in this community, that we need more programming. They understand that we need places for them to go - more outlets for their creativity so they don't have so much idle time that causes them to get into trouble."

Abbey Brown
14 March 2010

http://www.thetowntalk.com/article/20100314/NEWS01/3140309/1002 

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