Boards-Replacing-Judges

Boards replacing judges in juvenile court program

Updated: Sunday, 03 Jun 2012, 12:31 PM EDT Published : Sunday, 03 Jun 2012, 12:31 PM EDT

  • MICHAEL PUFFER,Republican-American

WATERBURY, Conn. (AP) — What do a shoplifting girl from Nonnewaug High School, a 13-year-old who pummeled a bully in Wolcott and two Waterbury girls who brawled at North End Middle School have in common?

All of them were arrested and could have ended up in front of a judge.

Instead, these youngsters found themselves before a panel of six empathetic women.

The women handed down punishments including community service, letters of apology, charitable donations, research projects on peer pressure, or some combination thereof.

Led by Kelly Cronin, Waterbury Youth Service Systems Inc. director, the group is known as the Juvenile Review Board. Members are drawn from local youth-oriented nonprofits and service agencies. The board is empowered to take cases of first-time offenders referred from juvenile court. As a test, the group is also taking students referred to it by West Side Middle School.

The board has handled 33 cases since it re-launched in February. Its board is drawn from youth-oriented nonprofits and service agencies. They meet twice monthly.

Similar boards have been created in the area, including in Naugatuck, which started its board in 2010, and in Torrington and Winsted, where local youth service bureaus started programs in 2008 and found an additional benefit of being able to track families whose children come before the board for several years, offering future assistance beyond the initial problem. Officials in Thomaston voted in March to start a board in their town, noting its success elsewhere.

The court diversions are an attempt to keep kids who slipped from entering the juvenile justice system. At West Side in Waterbury, the effort is taken one step further, as an alternative to students who act up and would otherwise face arrest, Cronin said.

Most of the cases come from Waterbury, with a smaller number of offenders from surrounding towns.

The students come with a range of challenges.

The Wolcott boy had been bullied for years — in school and over the computer. His father says that school officials refused to do anything, or even to document the bullying, until he complained to the State Department of Education. One day the bullied boy beat his tormentor.

“I couldn’t take it any more, so I just punched him,” the soft-spoken boy told a panel of six volunteers at the Waterbury Youth Service System offices Tuesday. He was arrested.

The board was sympathetic. Before he entered, Cronin described him as sweet and polite.

“He even holds your chair out for you,” Cronin said.

The board had previously ordered the boy to write a short paper on what he had learned. On Tuesday, they heard from the boy and his father. The boy had written a paper about not acting on such impulses, and his case was dismissed. His father wanted to know if the board had access to summer activities. Cronin recommended a club run by the Kiwanis Club.

“And there is no bullying at our camp. I promise you that,” Cronin said with a smile.

The new board isn’t for every youthful offender. The women had to turn away a Waterbury middle school student who screamed at a teacher, and sent him back to court. It turns out he had other arrests. One happened during a fight with his brother last summer. There was another for arguing with his school principal. The boy’s mother said he’s trying, but there’s a problem with the way school staff talk to him.

On Tuesday, the board also saw a Waterbury middle school girl who had been arrested after fighting with a former friend in school. Friends told her the other girl had spoken ill of her on the Internet social networking site Facebook.com.

“It might be my age, sweetie, but it seems like you are fighting over something you don’t know if it happened,” said Marcy Kane, vice president of children’s services at Wellmore Behavioral Health.

The girl denied it, but there are allegations that she and a group went to the other girl’s home after the arrest to try to spark another fight.

The girl’s mother brought another daughter, age 13, with her to the hearing. Board members urged her to get them involved in a summer program. The mom said she’s trying to find them a job, but she doesn’t have their birth certificates and Social Security cards handy. She asked the women to explain to the girls why teenage sex is a bad idea.

“They say ‘Mom, I don’t understand, everybody else is doing it,'” the woman said.

The girl was asked to write a two-page paper on the negative effects of peer pressure.

Until their cases are dismissed, the young offenders will have to keep returning to the board. Board members are able to offer families a range of options for counseling and social service help. The hope is that with the right interventions, and a display of caring, these youths will never end up in a criminal process again. The board dealt with eight cases over three hours Tuesday.

“When cases are appropriate, it’s very successful,” Cronin said. “If they don’t end up in juvenile court, that’s a success.”