Bolton: The right kind of diversion can keep youths out of trouble, help them succeed

Associate EditorFebruary 13, 2014 

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    An occasional look at organizations in our community that are working to channel young people into positive pursuits.

— Saving Our Youth

WHEN DE’AJA Spain first entered a youth arbitration program run by the Richland County Sheriff’s Department, she didn’t want any part of it.

She had agreed to participate only because the alternative was a trip to court to face a judge for her part in a fight in which both sides shared equal blame. But if she completed the diversionary program, she would avoid court and would be given the opportunity to wipe her slate clean.

Still, it wasn’t easy. “I had to face the person I had the altercation with. I wasn’t a changed person (yet),” De’Aja said.

Today, she is a changed person and is singing the praises of the youth arbitration program.

So is her mother. “I think it’s a great program,” Greta Spain said. She said she is grateful that her daughter, whom she said is a good teen but needed direction, was given a chance to learn from her mistake.

“This program kind of got her mind right and going in the right direction,” Ms. Spain said of her 17-year-old. “Her attitude changed tremendously.”

De’Aja said that without the program and the guidance of arbitrator Melissa Hunter, “I would have continued doing what I was doing.”

She said she’d tell others in a similar situation to take advantage of the program, not simply to avoid court but to improve themselves. “Do it,” she said. “It’s worth it.”

Indeed, any program that cuts off the pipeline of habitual offenders, with their lives of failure, crime or gang affiliation, is worth it. The sheriff’s department’s youth arbitration program, administered in partnership with the Fifth Circuit Solicitor’s Office and the Department of Juvenile Justice, catches youths the first time they make a bad decision and seeks to turn them around immediately, before they become troublemakers.

Saving our youth

As local law enforcement, elected and community leaders and others talk about ways to address gangs — from Five Points to north Columbia — I have been highlighting programs aimed at helping young people become productive, law-abiding citizens. The youth arbitration program is one of several crime-prevention initiatives the sheriff’s department offers to help teens overcome mistakes and troubled families strengthen frayed relationships.

Obviously, there’s nothing good about fighting. But when someone who made a bad decision takes advantage of a second chance, that’s a success story. No doubt, some of the positive attitude and momentum from the youth arbitration program continues to linger for De’Aja, a bright, energetic high school senior who was willing to share her experience in hopes that her story would help others.

After she completed the 90-day process, she participated in a certified nursing-assistant program offered at school and passed required testing to earn her certification, a feat some adults struggle to accomplish. Pretty soon, she’ll be graduating from Ridge View High and has plans to attend Midlands Technical College in nursing.

What if she hadn’t entered the arbitration program but rather had ended up in court? Who knows where she would be. For that matter, where would the hundreds of others who have gone through the Richland program be? There have been too many times in this community and state when a kid has committed a minor offense such as disturbing schools or shoplifting and ended up at DJJ; once detained long enough with a more hardened crowd, many become repeat offenders.

Pound of prevention

Fortunately, DJJ has moved past the days when it warehoused young offenders, seeking instead to divert them into programs that can help turn their lives around. Among its many efforts, the state agency provides support and funding for youth arbitration programs in all 16 judicial circuits. Statewide, more than 22,000 youngsters have been referred to the program since 2008-2009, according to DJJ.

Nearly 2,000 youths have come through Richland County’s program, and approximately 200 are currently enrolled. Lt. Kim Myers, the sheriff’s department’s youth arbitration director, said more than 90 percent of participants complete it. Those who don’t must go to court.

The arbitration program allows first-time offenders ages 12 to 18 detained for such minor offenses as disturbing schools, vandalism and shoplifting to work to clear their records. Gang members and those who face drug charges or are charged with violent crimes such as guns or sex assaults are not eligible. Although participants aren’t arrested or taken to court, they can’t get the matter officially expunged until they are 18.

While they avoid court, they don’t avoid having to make amends. Trained citizen arbitrators — Richland has 50 — hold hearings with the parties involved and tailor a program for each offender. First and foremost, the youths must admit their guilt and take responsibility for what they’ve done. They also must perform such tasks as making restitution, contributing to a charity, doing community service, writing a paper based on an assigned book, writing an apology and attending an anger management class. And they must take tours of the county jail or visit the coroner’s office or LRADAC.

Lt. Myers said the focus is restorative justice, which seeks to get offenders to think about what they’ve done and the effect it has on others. “It’s not a punishment. We’re teaching them” to be better people, she said.

Arbitrator Melissa Hunter said things got off to a slow start with De’Aja. “I saw a young lady that was angry and she was quiet. So I really couldn’t get that much out of her at the beginning.”

Ms. Hunter, an Army first sergeant stationed at Fort Jackson, said she spent time with De’Aja and “got into her business.”

“She turned out to be a really respectable young lady,” she said. As happens sometimes in this program, the relationship between the two grew into a mentoring opportunity for De’Aja.

New way of thinking

Recently, I sat in on an arbitration hearing at the sheriff’s department headquarters as arbitrator Gladys Harris oversaw the case of three teenage girls who were facing the offense of disturbing school. The three girls, accompanied by their parents, had been involved in an explosive verbal altercation. While it didn’t rise to fisticuffs, it disrupted lunchtime in the cafeteria and spilled outside.

All of the girls had to acknowledge guilt for their part in the uproar, and each one got an opportunity to explain what had happened. So did the school resource officer.

Ms. Harris explained that the experience would help the girls avoid court but that they had work to do to make things right. “What do you think we should do about repairing it?” she asked. “What kind of harm do you think this caused?”

After clearing the room, she brought the teens and their parents in one at a time to give them their tailored program. Both the parents and teens were required to sign paperwork pledging to meet the requirements of the program.

Ms. Harris, who has been an arbitrator for seven years, told me she’s always glad to see when parents are supportive. She said a lot of the youths she encounters are “very good kids” who get sidetracked by following other youngsters.

She views arbitration as a way to help them think through their mistakes and understand how they affect others. It also gives her a chance to help them become better people. She’s always asking herself, “How can I help them help themselves become better citizens?”

Reach Mr. Bolton at (803) 771-8631 or wbolton@thestate.com.

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