Victims, offenders meet in program

Conference initiative lets juveniles see impact of their transgressions

Carroll County

May 12, 2002|By Justin Paprocki | Justin Paprocki,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Carroll County is trying an innovative program that aims to keep juvenile offenders out of the court system and help them improve relationships in the communities where they got into trouble.

The "community conferences" - first held in Carroll County in January - have been used in Minnesota, Pennsylvania and in Baltimore. The Carroll County effort serves as the Department of Juvenile Justice's pilot program for Maryland counties.

"The conference is an alternative to the justice system," said Teresa Sturm, community conference coordinator in the Carroll County Office of Prevention Services, which has held eight conferences around the county. "We take juveniles who have minor violations, and we bring them together with whoever has been affected."

The idea, which began in New Zealand, comes from an aboriginal custom that uses "restorative justice" to solve problems rather than getting authorities involved.

Anyone from a police officer to a community member can refer youths to a conference, which are held in fire halls, community centers and other convenient places. The only qualifications are that the youths must be first-time offenders accused of no more than a misdemeanor and age 8 to 17. Youths must admit guilt, and all parties must agree to attend the conference.

During a conference, a community representative oversees a discussion between the young person and those affected by the action, which could include the youth's parents or even the spouse of the victim.

All sides share their stories and work to reach an agreement that could resolve the situation, such as an apology or community service.

In a typical situation, a juvenile offender is reported to the Department of Juvenile Justice - generating a criminal record. But in a community conference, the parties work to resolve the situation without police involvement.

An agreement has been reached in all of the conferences that have been held, Sturm said.

A violation of the law isn't necessary for a conference to be held. Young people can be referred for actions that aren't crimes, such as speaking rudely to neighbors.

Different solution

"This is teaching people a different way to handle their problems," Sturm said. "This empowers the person affected as well as the parents and youths. It's giving the youth a chance to hear how his or her behavior has affected others."

The conferences provide the individual attention that youths need, said Tracy Roberge, a conference facilitator. One of her sons had been involved in the juvenile justice system some years ago and didn't get that kind of support, she said.

"He never went face-to-face with any one of the people ... affected" by his actions, she said. "The community conferences really bring that aspect out."

For example, she oversaw a conference involving a group of young people caught playing with fireworks after a firecracker exploded in front of an empty school bus.

By the end of the conference, the youths had agreed to write apologies to those involved, and they later met with the bus driver to see how their actions could have had deadly results.

Community involvement

In another example, from a conference held in Baltimore, children had been denting neighborhood cars while playing football at night. The situation was resolved when one of the community members offered to take the youths to play in a park on Saturdays. That soon lead to the establishment of a youth football league, Roberge said.

"I find it a better way to heal the whole," said Diane McCoy, assistant prevention coordinator for Westminster-based Junction Inc., a substance abuse treatment program. "[The youths'] behavior has the opportunity to change because they have learned to solve a problem in a new way. They can take that to other parts of their lives."

Information: Teresa Sturm, 410-848-6100.

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