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Second chances for kids who test the law

By JACINDA HOWARD

The Mirror

A juvenile grabs a compact disc, tucking it quickly into a backpack.

The act takes less than a minute, but a store employee witnesses the theft and calls police. The juvenile knows this means trouble and wishes to undo the crime.

With the help of Partnership for Youth Justice, a King County Superior Court program, some juveniles receive the chance to compensate for their illegal actions by attending hearings and entering into diversion agreements with community accountability boards (CAB).

Washington state law requires prosecuting attorneys to refer all juveniles who have committed first-time misdemeanor crimes to a diversion program, such as Partnership for Youth Justice. Second-time offenders may also be referred if the prosecutor chooses.

It makes more sense for youth to be held accountable by their neighbors than to go to court for first-time offenses, said Matthew David, Partnership for Youth Justice area manager.

"We're not talking about kids who are out there stealing cars and burglarizing houses," David said. "They've made a mistake and a bad choice."

Partnership for Youth Justice operates 23 CABs in King County, spanning from Enumclaw north to Bothell, David said. The boards meet with juvenile offenders and create a diversion agreement for them.

"The mission of this is early intervention with youth," said Alan Willoughby, Federal Way CAB court adviser. "Getting kids to understand the choices they are making now can have an impact on them later."

A diversion agreement can prove beneficial to the juvenile. The agreements are not public files and, if fulfilled, will prevent the juvenile's offense from becoming part of a criminal record. Diversion is a great way for youth to put an incident behind them and prevent it from seriously affecting them later in life, David said.

Most offenders King County CABs see are between ages 11 and 17 — and a majority (93 percent) complete the program, David said.

Juveniles who participate in the program instead of attending court will meet with the community accountability board nearest their home. The board does not have the authority to order juveniles to be detained or imprisoned. Courts will decide the fate of juveniles who don't comply.

Sorry for their actions

Most juveniles who participate in community accountability boards genuinely feel sorry for their actions and want to make up for them, said Kathy Melsness, the Federal Way board's secretary coordinator. Many young offenders know they let down their community and their parents, and they can be hard on themselves because of that, she said.

A lawyer is not needed for the CAB meeting, but the youth does have the right to have one present, Melsness said.

A court adviser, usually a social worker or an attorney, is present to ensure all state and city regulations are followed and the juvenile's rights are respected, Willoughby said.

Each board has one to four CAB teams comprised of volunteers who are screened and trained by Partnership for Youth Services. Teams meet each Tuesday at the Federal Way Municipal Court.

The Federal Way Community Accountability Board has about 25 volunteers, Melsness said. In many cases, volunteers have had a child of their own who entered into a diversion agreement with a CAB, she said.

The Federal Way CAB sees an average of 24 cases a month. Usually, a team can see two or three juveniles per night, Willoughby said.

Teams examine the police report, talk to the juvenile as well as his or her guardians, then attempt to determine why the crime was committed. The volunteers approach the interview process with an open mind, David said.

"Making a bad choice doesn't make you a bad person," he said.

Types of diversions

Community Accountability Boards solicit input from victims before assigning an agreement, David said. They take into account the emotional and financial damage the juvenile's crime had on the victim. The board may require the juvenile to repay the victim's losses. This restitution will never exceed $900, David said.

After the interviews are completed, the board decides on a diversion agreement for the juvenile. This legal contract must be completed within six months, David said, and sometimes includes the writing of apology letters or essays.

Attending behavioral classes that correlate with the juvenile's crime, such as domestic violence, counseling or shoplifting prevention, are common stipulations.

"If a kid typically has a problem controlling his anger, it's 100 percent logical to assign him to an anger management class," David said.

Performing community service is another popular requirement listed in diversion agreements. No more than 40 hours can legally be assigned though. Community service is not meant to feel like punishment, David said. Rather, it is an opportunity for the youth to realize community service can make people feel good about themselves.

The boards encourage youth to become involved in community service that interests them. CABs want the juveniles to succeed so they give them a diversion agreement that can be accomplished, David said.

"I like kids to think of why they did what they did and examine their own internal thought process," he said.

If youth can make things right instead of being punished in court, they are less likely to get in the same kind of trouble later, David said. It is good to know they are building skills through something a CAB has asked them to do, he said.

The juvenile offenders sometimes approach Willoughby in the community and thank him for his service, he said. Some of the juveniles have even shown an interest in serving on a CAB in the future, he said.

Contact Jacinda Howard: jhoward@fedwaymirror.com or (253) 925-5565.

Fast facts:

Annually, about 3,000 King County juveniles enter into a diversion agreement with Partnership for Youth Services, said Matthew David, Partnership for Youth Justice area manager.

Between 2005 and 2006, the Federal Way Community Accountability Board saw 338 youths, David said. Of these, 182 had committed a theft, 22 had trespassed, 17 performed malicious mischief and 61 committed simple assualt.

The benefits of Partnership for Youth Services exceed beyond those experienced by the juvenile. King County requires that Partnership for Youth Justice charge offenders $172 to participate in the program. However, this amount will never exceed $172 and is less costly than the fee to appear in court — $580. The board offers installment options for its fees and, on some occasions, even waives all fees.

CABs save taxpayers money, David said. It can cost up to $10,000 to prosecute a case. Also, through a study done by Partnership for Youth Services, offenders who complete a diversion agreement are less likely to reoffend compared to those who go to court, he said.

For more information about this program, contact Matthew David at (206) 296-1136.

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