Juvenile offenders offered a break Balto. Co. program provides way to make amends, erase record

August 10, 1998|By Dail Willis | Dail Willis,SUN STAFF

It's a hot, sticky Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore County, and Courtroom No. 3 in Wilkens is quiet except for the muffled hum of a vacuum cleaner next door. Officer Sherell Queen leans across a glossy oak table usually occupied by prosecutors, an arrest report dangling from her fingers.

"The incident you were charged with was a narcotics violation," she says. "I know what the police report says, but I want you to tell me."

The 14-year-old boy in a purple shirt stares at the table and mumbles a few words, then wilts under Queen's stony gaze. His foster mother fidgets anxiously beside him.

The child is one of four this day who will sit across from Queen, own up to criminal behavior and be offered a break: voluntary participation in a small but strikingly effective Baltimore County Police Department program aimed at getting first-time offenders out of crime and into the community to make amends.

The program -- begun in the 1970s, discontinued and revived in three precincts last year -- is called Juvenile Offenders In Need of Supervision, or JOINS in the parlance of county law enforcement.

Offenders who opt for JOINS are diverted from Juvenile Court. Instead, they are given a community service assignment and, if they complete it, their offense is stricken from court records.

Unless they have been charged with a felony, all first-time offenders who admit guilt are considered for the program. Fighting, shoplifting, drug use and vandalism are the most common crimes among JOINS offenders.

Since the revival of the JOINS program a year ago, only four of 230 offenders in the program have committed a second crime, police records show. Its recidivism rate was equally low in the 1970s, averaging 6 percent among 3,042 juveniles in a five-year period.

"The philosophy is, kids grow best when they're in an environment where they're held accountable for what they do," said Mark Metzger, the Police Department's coordinator for the youth-community resources section, which includes JOINS.

"It's almost a mentoring relationship -- we're going to guide these kids through a variety of opportunities to learn."

Those opportunities include counseling, provided by social workers at the Department of Juvenile Justice, and supervised community service that is often linked to the offense. A child who vandalizes a school, for instance, might cut grass or paint the walls at that school.

If the crime was committed against a person, the victim will be offered restitution in the form of money or repairs. If the victim declines such direct restitution, JOINS participants might be assigned other tasks, such as cleaning a school, graveyard or nursing home.

Two driving principles

Created in 1976 by Pat Hanges, Baltimore County's first female police major, the program is driven by two principles: Youthful offenders must be held accountable for what they do and their atonement must be constructive and prompt.

In the traditional justice system, juvenile offenders can wait months for a hearing -- and when the hearing date arrives, minor charges are often dropped by Juvenile Court officers juggling dockets jammed with more serious crimes.

The result, say police officers, is that the juveniles move to more serious crimes, escalating into criminal behavior that will put some of them in adult jails.

Prompt action

In JOINS, which operates in the Wilkens, Woodlawn and Garrison precincts, the intervention is speedy.

Offenders meet with police officers and Department of Juvenile Justice workers within five days of the offense. Counseling and community service are scheduled at that first meeting.

"I noticed they weren't getting to them in a timely fashion," says Hanges, who has retired from the county Police Department and works with juveniles at the Charles H. Hickey Jr. School.

"If a kid is shoplifting, you want to deal with that -- you don't want to wait until they do two or three other things. I saw the kids were escalating, and I wanted to bring them in immediately and explain to the little devils, 'This is not how you're going to get through life.' "

Hanges found funds in 1976 -- "then, the federal money was flowing" -- and put together a JOINS unit of six officers. Among them was Metzger, who runs the program.

"You have to work immediately with the kids, in the precinct," Hanges says.

Another key element, say Hanges and Metzger, is the idea that any crime, even a relatively minor one, tears the social fabric -- and the damage must be mended promptly by the person responsible.

National studies of juvenile crime and punishment support that view. A 1992 study of 13,500 cases in Utah's juvenile justice system -- which relies heavily on restitution -- found that repeat offenses were lowest among those who made amends either to the victim or to the community.

Also significant in the study was a secondary finding that recidivism was lowest among first-time offenders who made restitution, when compared with second, third or fourth offenders.

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