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Vermont’s juvenile justice teaches kids community can help

Susan Notes:

This is the third of four columns in a series about the nationâs oldest and most mature restorative juvenile justice system.

The first column in this series is here, followed by a second. This series is definitely worth your time and consideration.

by Julia Steiny

The rate at which a state incarcerates its juvenile offenders says a lot less about the level of criminal activity than about the stateâs attitude toward youth.

Vermont, for example, doesnât even maintain a youth prison, to speak of. They hardly believe in prison for juveniles.

Stacy Jolles, Vermontâs director of juvenile justice, says, âGenerally we donât lock kids up. We recognize them as kids with needs. Most of the time kids who are adjudicated are working in the community, repairing the harm theyâve done.â

Thatâs an attitude helpful to troubled kids.

And lest you think Vermont is too rural and homogeneous to have a crime problem, of the six states with the highest juvenile incarceration rates, three are also rural and homogeneous. South Dakota is number one; Wyoming and Alaska are three and four. The District of Columbia is second, and tied for fifth are Florida and Colorado.

At the time Jolles and I spoke, Vermont had eight offenders in the adult prison for serious crimes committed before their 18th birthdays. The federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention puts Vermontâs rate of juvenile incarceration at 51 per 100,000, which seems high to Jolles. The national average is 295 per 100,000 (2006 data, the latest available).

With a mere 28 beds, Vermontâs only locked facility for juveniles, Woodside, is mainly for crisis stabilization. One wing is for short-term care, the other for treating young men with aggressive behaviors. The facility itself is locked, but the kidsâ bedrooms are not. They get treatment, not punishment. And meanwhile, home-based workers get their families and communities ready to take the kid back.

Living in a prison canât possibly teach a kid how to live in a community. And living in a community must be the goal for any and all offenders, except those condemned to life imprisonment. Copious research collected in recent years shows that prisons make kids far more likely to stay involved with criminal activity than they were before prison.

So Vermontâs juvenile justice strategy is to work on restoring kidsâ bonds to their communities in ways that prisons could never do. After all, most kidsâ crimes are stupid pranks and acts of greedy thoughtlessness. Kids typically have no thought for the people from whom they steal or the owners of property they vandalize. Vermontâs system forces them to think about what they did, and who was affected by it.

Since the mid-1990s, Vermont has been sending offenders to restorative panels, made up of trained community volunteers. Most offenders who go before these panels have been adjudicated by the courts. Others go before diversion boards, which are similar, through a different route. In some districts, the police refer kids to their local panel before filing a charge, for a low-level offense that indicates the kid is on a bad path. If the offenders in any of these cases complete the contract the panel or board imposes, they are not formally charged, of if they were, their records are sealed.

The panels hear the kidâs story â and the victimsâ, if they choose to participate. Then the parties fashion a restitution contract. The kid works on repairing the harm heâs caused whiling living at home, where he belongs. If the home itself is a problem, the system sends staff to work with the family.

Very enlightened. Get to the root of the bad behavior. Work on that.

Cindy Walcott, deputy commissioner in the Department of Children and Families (DCF), was a young social worker in 1980âs, when the restorative justice program was just beginning. âThe feeling at the time was that these are our kids, and we will provide the same support and services as if they came to us at DCF any other wayâ â like through a report of child abuse. Vermontâs social workers also serve as probation officers, so one workerâs caseload might include a neglected infant and a kid who stole from a hardware store. Both kidsâ lives and futures are at risk. Jolles says, âFrom our perspective the red flag is the same, but the interventions are different.â

The point is to decrease the likelihood of the problem happening again, whether itâs crime or neglect.

And 90 percent of the offenders complete their restitution contracts. If a kid refuses to cooperate, the regular court system acts as a back-up.

Jolles says, âWe have street checkers in every district working with the kids to complete their obligations. Thatâs what makes this system balanced. Youâre not only working on getting the kid who created the harm to make reparations, but youâre helping the kid do it. They have to build their competencies. The restorative panel assigns a checker to the case whenever the kid has trouble meeting the conditions of their probation. We feel that many probation criteria are just set-ups to fail, so the checkers work with the kids to help them succeed.â

The one major wrinkle in Vermontâs lovely justice system is that its laws leave it up to elected country prosecutors to decide whether a 16- or 17-year-old should be tried in the adult court or family court system. A kid who goes to Vermontâs family court gets a very enlightened response. But otherwise, heâs punished conventionally and has a record for the rest of his life. Jolles and her colleagues often go out to speak with justice officials to persuade them of the value of processing kids through the juvenile system.

That value seems obvious enough to me. But retributive attitudes are alive and well, even in Vermont. But not in great force. The state still has the lowest juvenile incarceration rate in the nation, saving money and young lives.

Next week, the last column in this series will observe the inner workings of some of these panels.

Julia Steiny, a former member of the Providence School Board, consults for government agencies and schools; she is co-director of Information Works!, Rhode Islandâs school-accountability project. She can be reached at juliasteiny@gmail.com, or c/o EdWatch, The Providence Journal, 75 Fountain St., Providence, RI 02902.

— Julia Steiny
Providence Journal



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