Not Criminals, Just Confused Kids

March 23, 1994

As politicians have been busy this year proposing and pondering tough new ways to fight crime, they have not ignored juvenile offenders, particularly those who commit felonies. But what to do with the thousands of youths each year who get caught in minor infractions that could be the first steps toward more serious criminal activity? Fortunately for Howard County families, the local police department offers the "Diversion" program in which first-time juvenile offenders can sidestep the usual criminal justice track while atoning and taking responsibility for their misdeeds.

The program has existed since 1978. However, during its first decade, the staff therapist and the police officers who ran Diversion were inconsistent in how they monitored and counseled youthful offenders. Then, five years ago, the police hired professional therapist Dawn Stonesifer to guide the operation. Working entirely on her own, she has supplied the focus that the program had lacked.

Diversion works this way: After a youth has been arrested for a misdemeanor crime and expressed remorse for it, he or she can agree to seek counseling, perform community service or pay restitution. As Ms. Stonesifer explains, the idea is to put the responsibility for the act on the youth's shoulders. The program is apparently a success. Of the few hundred young people who go through Diversion each year, only about 3 to 5 percent are arrested for subsequent crimes; in general, the juvenile recidivism rate in Howard County is slightly higher. County police especially appreciate the program's "diversion" of youngsters who might ordinarily become headaches for the police.

Most folks may not think of affluent Howard County as a place where juvenile delinquency is a problem. On the contrary, Ms. Stonesifer says, the majority of her clients are from middle- to upper-class homes. She attributes this to the fact that parents in wealthier families may be too engrossed in their work to pay attention to their kids.

But being a parent today is hard, even for involved parents, Ms. Stonesifer adds. Many families will need help when their children become teens. Ideally, the average family will be strong enough to handle whatever problems arise. And when they aren't, they may be glad they encountered a program such as Diversion.

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