Families slowly trickled into the Manito Methodist Church on a Thursday night, but they weren’t there for a religious service.
Area churches serve as meeting grounds for the Neighborhood Accountability Board’s diversion program, which serves juveniles who have committed misdemeanors.
The 20-year-old program is designed for first-time youth offenders 8 and older, who still live with their families. Common offenses include theft, substance abuse, fourth degree assault, minors in possession (of alcohol), and malicious mischief, said Scott Ryman, the diversion program coordinator.
Perpetrators are given the option of the diversion program or juvenile court. Eligibility for diversion is based on risk assessment; board members look at the children’s social factors (peer acceptance, school and home life), and assess whether they will benefit from this program.
The kids, who have admitted their guilt, read and sign a contract pledging to complete the program. Next, they attend an hour-long interview with one or two board members. The board members are not there to judge, but to intervene before delinquent behavior becomes habitual, Ryman said.
During interviews, board members talk with the young offenders and their parents. “(These kids) need encouragement from somebody with authority to help them build respect for community standards,” said Ryman.
After the interviews, juveniles must follow through by doing community service at a site they select. Acceptable sites are non-profit organizations such as churches or schools. They keep time slips to account for hours worked.
The youths also attend educational sessions that motivate kids to make changes that are healthy, said Ryman. Those classes include substance abuse, anger management, victim awareness and temptation.
And finally, offenders are required to make restitution with their victims.
The perpetrators are both monitored and mentored by board members to ensure they are holding up their end of the bargain. If at any time they are negligent in the contract, they are sent back to juvenile court.
What do the kids gain from participating in the program? A positive first experience with the legal system, Ryman said. The program allows them the opportunity to take accountability for their actions. Two years after completing the contract, diversion records are sealed and destroyed, and youths have a clean slate.
About 60 people volunteer; they are divided into three boards in the Valley, and on the north and south sides. The boards meet twice a month to assess each individual case.
Volunteers make a one-year commitment, and attend seven three-hour training classes on topics including introduction to juvenile law, interviewing techniques, communication skills, and neighborhood resources.
The program is not meant for serious offenders, Ryman said. The goal of the program is to teach accountability to those who are still “reachable.”
“You can’t force people to make changes. You must work with them in a way that gives them the desire to fix what is wrong and avoid messing up future opportunities,” said Ryman.
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