Tribal justice

Sheriff's department implements new program to deal with youth offenders

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Three teen-age boys sit at a table in a room at the Moffat County Sheriff's Department. They have just been caught for trespassing and attempted theft. On the other side of the table is a man who is visibly upset because of the crime. He isn't the judge or a sheriff's department official, he is the victim.

The scene is new but could become regular in Moffat County juvenile cases. At a time when questions are being asked about youth of the nation, Moffat County is implementing a program that makes juvenile offenders own up to their actions in the face of their victims.

The Juvenile Accountability Conference program puts representatives from the Sheriff's Department in a room with the offender, the offender's parents or guardian, and the victim. They hash out the situation between themselves.

In the first Moffat County case, the victim, who knew the offenders before the crime, expressed he was disappointed in the boys and he expected more from them. According to a Sheriff's Department official, the victim made it clear to the boys he felt violated and he was upset.

Deputy Gary Nichols was the arresting officer in the case and participated in the conference.

"This puts all of the people involved in a room together," said Nichols. "It is a reality check. It lets the perpetrator know the crime did affect someone and how it affected them."

The crime was basically a prank gone bad, according to Sgt. Tim Jantz, who was the facilitator in the process.

"We were all a little bit apprehensive to see if it was going to work," said Jantz. "The hope is that through this process we can get to them before they get handled by the system, then we have made positive strides in Moffat County and in the lives of the juveniles."

The conference went according to plan with the help of parents of the juveniles, and the victim.

"The parents were wonderful," said Jantz. "They were behind their children, yet they wanted to see justice done. The victim was open and shared his honest feelings. He told them that he expected more from them."

The juveniles involved gave a sincere apology, according to Jantz. They worked with the victim to come up with a mutual solution of community service.

"The victim and the criminal came up with the punishment themselves," said Jantz. "The people who committed the crime were more harsh on themselves than the victim."

Once the punishment was agreed upon, both Jantz and Nichols left the room. This gave the victim and the offenders time to talk about the process, heal and move on.

"They came together and shook hands and there was a sincere apology," said Jantz.

"Everyone was mingling and talking," said Nichols. "It was a real positive meeting. I was impressed."

The program is based on an age-old tactic used by the Maori Tribe in New Zealand to deal with youth offenders. It may sound far-fetched that a tribal practice could be benefical to juveniles in Moffat County, but Sheriff's Department officials are encouraged by the results.

The Juvenile Accountability Conference was implemented by the Sheriff's Department and the Moffat County Crisis Intervention Community Evaluation Team. Only one juvenile case has been put through the program, but officials believe everyone involved benefits more from the program than going through the courts.

The idea of an accountability conference took the long way to Moffat County. The Australian Police developed a model of the conference from the Maori people and from there it was brought to the United States by Sgt. Terry O'Connell of the New South Wales Police Department of Australia. He toured the United States speaking about police conferences to anyone who would listen.

There are a couple of stipulations that must be met before a juvenile is let into the program.

The juvenile must be a first-time offender, the victim has to be willing to participate, the juvenile has to admit to the crime and the crime must be minor - no crimes of violence.

The setting allows the victim to express feelings about what took place. This is considered crucial to the program because it gives power back to the victim. This is in contrast to the court system which portrays the crime as being against the state.

The program also allows the victim to communicate and play a role in the process. The court system does the opposite. The victim is rarely heard and quickly becomes a third party.

"A lot of times victims feel left out in the process," said Jantz. "This process lets them be heard and be involved all of the way through. They don't feel second-best."

There are some psychological issues at work in this program that don't come out in a court room, according to Christy Bevel, director of the Moffat County Crisis Intervention Community Evaluation Team. Bevel was instrumental in introducing this program into Moffat County after the 14th Judicial District received grants to start the program. She is also the person who decides if juveniles fit the criteria to enter the program.

In the program, based on the Maori process, the extended network of friends and family share the responsibility for a young person's behavior while involving the victims of that behavior in the resolution. It emphasizes the collective response of the community to social problems, according to Bevel. The theory behind the process is that shame is a powerful deterrent and that shame is only generated through social disapproval and by the conscience. These are not emphasized in a traditional court situation.

Bevel believes a successful accountability conference has to threaten the young offender with social disapproval. It must also allow the victims, offenders and those closest to them to vent their shame and anger, thereby erasing the labels of victim and offender.

Basically people are threatened more by the effect of public disgrace than by public punishment, according to Bevel.

"An offender is forced to put a face with a crime," said Bevel. "The victim isn't in the person's thoughts when they are deciding to commit the crime. The program is still in the infancy stages, but we believe that it will be beneficial to Moffat County."

The city of Anoka, Minn., happened to be experiencing a rash of juvenile crimes. Juveniles were becoming increasingly involved in serious criminal behavior at much younger ages. The Anoka police chief heard O'Connell speak at the University of Minnesota and adopted the conferences.

Sgt. Denny Reihe runs the Juvenile Accountability Conferencing for the Anoka Police Department. He has yet to see any other program that has been as successful at keeping juveniles from becoming repeat offenders.

"The integrated shaming is to get them to realize that there are victims and they get an opportunity to see the face of the victim," said Reihe. "It's been really well accepted by the community. Out of the 700 juveniles who have participated, only 16 have gone on to commit other crimes."

Officials at the 14th Judicial District wants to achieve the same results.

Even though only one conference has been completed in Moffat County, Sheriff's Department officials expect good results from the program.

"There were real emotions that you don't get in a courtroom," said Jantz. "Before we labeled these kids and jammed them into a system, we took a negative and turned it into a positive. It's becoming involved in our county and I think we are on the right track. Short term, it seemed real positive and we'll see in the future. It will be a while until we can see how this program affects our kids."

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