Juvenile court may not be only option, but often is
By: Sara Gates and Patrick Hoover
If your minor child gets in trouble with the law, going to court may not have to be the only option.
Similar to programs in a few other jurisdictions nationwide, the Montgomery County State Attorney’s Office, in conjunction with other stake holders, introduced an early diversion program in January that separates some, qualified juveniles from the rest of the pack, giving them the chance to forgo the juvenile court system.
The program consists of a voluntary mediation session between the victim and the juvenile responsible for the offense. Georgine Deboard, the 13 year supervisor of Montgomery County’s Teen Court, has helped more than three thousand teens avert the court system. By last summer, Deboard had supervised 14 meditations, all of which were successful.
“We screen them at the police department. Any serious injuries or serious offenses, we send to DJS,” Deboard said. “We’re very selective with the cases. It has to be voluntary.”
But the lack of time and volunteers limits the number of juveniles who can participate in the diversion program. Deboard said she would love to expand, as she certainly has the business, but does not have the resources to do so at this time.
Organizations in New Zealand and Australia pioneered a new style of mediation through community conferencing. Instead of a one-on-one conference between a victim and a perpetrator, with a mediator overseeing the dialogue, community conferencing opens up the conversation to anyone affected in the wider community.
Dr. Lauren Abramson, the founder and executive director of the Community Conferencing Center in Baltimore, imported the concept and started the CCC 12 years ago. Today, the CCC handles about 1,100 referrals a year from the police department, State Attorney’s Office, Department of Juvenile Services and the school system.
“There’s very little [available in] the system between doing nothing, and sending the kid to court and being committed [to a facility],” Abramson said. “I think that both are needed,” she said of the juvenile court system and community conferencing, noting that there just “aren’t enough programs to deal with misdemeanor and minor felony offenses.”
Abramson sees everything from felony offenses to shoplifting charges.
“We see at lot of assault, second degree assaults, juvenile auto theft [and] shoplifting. Those are the biggest ones,” Abramson said. “We take as serious of incidents as they will send us. We try not to take the very minor incidents because those shouldn’t be in the system any how.”
The CCC is funded by government programs and private foundations. Its budget is under $500,000 a year, but Abramson estimates the cost of community conferencing is about 1/10 the cost of sending cases through the court system.
Though the CCC only serves Baltimore locals, it is very active in training facilitators throughout the State and holds monthly state-wide meetings for community conferencing providers.
The Community Resolution Center of Montgomery County, CCC’s local associate, offers community conferencing and dialogue circles for Montgomery County juveniles. To date, the CRCMC or “CricMick,” has held 34 regular conferences and 30 rapid response conferences, all of which reached successfully agreements.
CRCMC, also funded by government and private grants, receives a majority of its referrals from local schools. Unlike, the CCC, it receives few referrals from local DJS and State Attorney’s Offices.
Pete Meleney, co-director at CCC, explained that the few referrals made directly from juvenile court have been mostly unworkable. Typically, by the time a case reaches court, several weeks or more, have passed since the offence occurred. That kind of time delay is anathema to successful juvenile-victim mediation.
Meleney added that since CRCMC receives a majority of its referrals from schools, one of its more active services, rapid response, sends facilitators to the school as soon as possible to mediate between students.
“It’s a lot harder to sit across the table from a real person,” co-director Holly Maassarani said. “The rate of compliance with these agreements is far greater than in restitution agreements.”
For more information about CRCMC: http://www.crcmc.org.