Project to fight crime sociably

Conference program to introduce youths to victims, not courts

`A good prevention tool'

September 11, 2001|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Carroll will become the first Maryland county to institute a community program aimed at keeping troubled youth out of the juvenile justice system by having them participate in a conference with their victims to resolve problems amicably.

Diane McCoy, prevention coordinator at Junction Inc., a substance abuse treatment program, said more than 80 percent of the county's Department of Juvenile Justice cases could qualify for the community conferencing initiative, which she detailed for the county commissioners and area mayors last week.

She gave the officials an example of how the program might work:

A man who raises pigeons faces constant harassment from youths, who eventually destroy his coops and hurt some of the birds. Instead of filing charges, the man opts for a community conference, led by a trained volunteer. Working together, the group hammers out an agreement in a timely manner. The children agree to rebuild the coops and help care for the injured birds. The owner gives them lessons on raising pigeons, a project that also involves the parents.

"This program is a way to address neighborhood nuisances," said McCoy. "It is a good prevention tool to help our youth and solve problems in the community. We know of many cases that could have been averted if they had come to community conferencing."

As part of the resolution, the parties involved would sign an agreement, which the program coordinator makes certain is fulfilled by a specified deadline.

Carroll is the first Maryland county to receive state funding - a $50,000 grant - for the program, which will rely heavily on volunteers who are to serve as facilitators. The concept is based on Aborigine tribal customs in which elders intercede to help parents rein in unruly youth. Several visitors from Australia will be helping during the training phase.

"They have been doing this program in Baltimore successfully for two years," said George Butler, an investigator with the Carroll state's attorney's office. "Everybody who has come to the table there has left with an agreement, and there have been no breaches."

Carroll was chosen to pilot the community conferencing initiative, Butler said, after county officials impressed state Department of Juvenile Justice Secretary Bishop L. Robinson with a presentation on the program, which Robinson hopes to expand to other parts of the state.

"Years ago, communities solved their problems by talking across the backyard fence," said Westminster Mayor Kevin Dayhoff. "This program offers communities a similar way to solve problems without involving government."

McCoy will start the program with 12 trained volunteers. Commissioner Donald I. Dell said he expects many people will come forward to help with the program.

"This is an ambitious program and it has to be ongoing," Dell said.

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