Youths to get choice: Face judge or victim Community conference with offender seen as way to learn from error

November 20, 1998|By Erika Niedowski | Erika Niedowski,SUN STAFF

Some youthful Columbia offenders will soon take part in an unorthodox "community conferencing" initiative that promotes rehabilitation through dialogue -- with their victims, their parents, county police and local officials.

Instead of having their cases heard before a judge, children caught shoplifting or trespassing on school property, for instance, would attend a conference that would include the store owner whose goods were stolen or the principal whose school was broken into. A Maryland Department of Juvenile Justice official would be a moderator.

The technique, based on aboriginal custom in New Zealand, encourages "restorative justice" through one of the oldest means: shame.

"The idea is to help illustrate for the person who committed the crime how his act affected more than just himself," said John Snyder, vice chairman of the Long Reach Village Board, who has volunteered to participate in sessions. "And it's good for the victims to achieve closure."

The Department of Juvenile Justice is supporting the initiative with a one-year, $38,700 grant. The program would begin in Long Reach, probably next month, and expand countywide.

Long Reach was chosen because the village center and surrounding neighborhoods were designated in 1997 as a "hot spot" qualifying for state funds to fight crime.

Only juveniles with no record who commit a nonviolent misdemeanor -- and have admitted it -- would be eligible. Participation is voluntary.

According to state and local officials, community conferencing, which could help reduce the backlog of juvenile court cases, is common practice in Australia, including in schools and businesses.

It has been tried to a lesser extent in Pennsylvania, Vermont and Minnesota, and was recently introduced in Baltimore -- the first time, officials say, that it has been used in a big city.

Lauren Abramson, an assistant professor of psychology at the Johns Hopkins University, received an 18-month, $48,750 grant in the summer from the Open Society Institute-Baltimore to help create a conferencing program in four inner-city neighborhoods.

Gov. Parris N. Glendening announced this year that the state, through its Office of Crime Control and Prevention, had designated part of a $286,000 grant for the same purpose.

In Howard County, Genevieve E. McCardell, a Department of Juvenile Justice officer who will be a facilitator for the conferences in Long Reach and coordinate the pilot program countywide, and Lisa Bridgeforth, the county police officer assigned to the Long Reach "hot spot," are flagging cases in which community conferencing might be appropriate. They hope hold the first conference by Dec. 11.

"The conference is not just for the offender," said McCardell. "It's for the whole community."

Last month, several Long Reach officials attended a Baltimore training seminar led by John M. McDonald and David B. Moore, co-founders of Transformative Justice Australia, a company that promotes the technique. Participants staged a mock conference which the "offender," accompanied by a parent or other supporter, explained why he had fired a pellet gun, then heard firsthand how his act affected the community as a whole.

At the end of the session, the conferees agreed as a group on an appropriate resolution -- such as payment for damages or community service.

Snyder, the Long Reach Village Board vice chairman, played the part of the 10-year-old victim. "It was a real thought-provoking situation where you stop and you bring all these people to bear," he said.

The program, he added, is geared toward "a kid who did something really stupid, [but] doesn't necessarily need to go through the juvenile justice system to square it away."

Pub Date: 11/20/98

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