Young offenders get a second chance

March 07, 1994|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,Sun Staff Writer

When the woman's teen-age daughter assaulted her and vandalized her Wilde Lake home about a year ago, she called police to have her only child arrested.

"I had to call police finally and protect me," said Barbara, a nursing manager, who asked that her full name not be used to protect her daughter's identity.

But instead of going through the traditional juvenile justice system, the 15-year-old was offered the opportunity to enter the Howard County Police Department's Diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders.

Diversion allowed her to perform 20 hours of community service, instead of risking conviction of assault and destruction of property, which would have left her with a criminal record.

"It kept my child out of the court system," Barbara said. "It helped enlighten a first-time offender who ordinarily would have been tagged as a bad kid or a bad seed."

Giving juveniles a second chance is Diversion's purpose, said Dawn Stonesifer, the program's coordinator and therapist. She works in the police department's youth division.

Last year, 242 youths of the approximately 1,200 arrested in the county entered Diversion. In all, they performed 1,378 hours of community service and paid restitution to 122 victims.

"The majority of the kids I'm seeing are overall really good kids who've used really poor judgment and found themselves in a bad situation or decided to try something and got caught," Ms. Stonesifer said.

"If we can divert them, they have the advantage of taking this opportunity and learning and growing from it," she added.

Diversion, which began in 1978, is unusual in that it uses a civilian therapist to provide free counseling to youngsters and their families through a police department program, Ms. Stonesifer said.

Ms. Stonesifer took over the Diversion program five years ago. The only cost to the county is her salary.

The program is open to first-time, nonviolent offenders who have committed minor offenses and are 17 or younger. Ms. Stonesifer has seen children as young as 7.

In order to be eligible, the youngster must be a county resident, volunteer for the program and admit guilt. The victim and the apprehending officer must consent to the youth's participation.

If an investigation reveals that a youngster is unconcerned, apathetic or unremorseful for his or her actions, the case is forwarded to the Juvenile Services Administration.

After Ms. Stonesifer determines a youth is eligible for Diversion, she contacts parents for a conference to discuss the nature of the child's case and to discuss options.

Some families choose to go through juvenile services because they don't feel the child is guilty or because they feel more comfortable taking a traditional route, she said.

But if a family is willing to participate, the youngster signs a contract to perform community service, such as working with a church group, or to pay restitution, if appropriate.

Ms. Stonesifer also does "a mini-psycho-social history" of the youngster to determine if breaking the law was an indicator of other problems and to try to predict whether the youngster is at risk of arrest again.

If a youngster commits another crime, the Diversion contract is violated and the case is transferred to juvenile services, where the youth could be punished for the original crime, Ms. Stonesifer said.

About 5 percent to 6 percent of the Diversion youngsters become repeat offenders, she said. In general, the recidivism rate among juveniles in the county is between 5 percent and 8 percent, said Bobbie Fine, the county's only juvenile prosecutor.

Most of the youngsters who take part in the program have been arrested for misdemeanors, such as possession of pagers on school property, trespassing or vandalism, Ms. Stonesifer said.

In most cases, violent crimes and felonies are automatically referred to juvenile services. However, a few of these cases, such as Barbara's daughter, get a shot at Diversions.

Ms. Stonesifer takes only partial credit for the Diversion participants who avoid future problems.

"What happens is the kids come in here and assume responsibility and they learn a lesson," she said. "So they get the credit for straightening it out as well.

"I put the responsibility on the child," she said, "and I don't allow the child to make excuses and blame the parent."

Drew Watt, supervisor for the county's juvenile services, said his department supports Diversion.

"I think it's a way of keeping kids out of the system," he said.

Ms. Fine, of the state's attorney's office, who prosecuted 558 juvenile cases last year, had a more restrained view.

"For some juveniles, the Diversion program works very well," she said. "But a few of them look at it as a joke. 'Hey, I got off. Nothing happened.' "

Ms. Stonesifer, who also conducts parent-child communication workshops, said doing her job means less police involvement.

Another part of her job is acting as a mediator, counseling some of the 400 to 500 runaways reported each year in the county. That was how she met Barbara's child, who had run away from home more than 20 times.

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