PAWTUCKET—“Youth is wasted on the young” and no one knows that better than those working in law enforcement. Sorting out those teens who commit a crime due to immaturity and who deserve a second chance versus those who are truly delinquent is the goal of the city's Juvenile Hearing Board.
It will be 20 years ago this month that Pawtucket's Juvenile Hearing Board was formed, and the panel of citizens has saved many a youthful offender from having a police record, but more importantly, going on to commit further crimes.
The board, which works in conjunction with the Pawtucket Police Department, consists of members of the community who are appointed by Mayor Donald Grebien. City ordinance calls for a minimum of one appointee from each of the six council districts, plus one from at large, but there are currently 16 board members now, providing a diverse cross section of the city's demographic make up.
Youths who are under the age of 18 and who commit a crime that would be considered a misdemeanor if committed by an adult may be referred to the Juvenile Hearing Board as an alternative to Rhode Island Family Court. According to Major Arthur Martins, several other municipalities in Rhode Island have such panels, and Pawtucket established its board through legislation passed on Nov. 12, 1993.
Martins said the hearing board is aimed at younger teens who are first-time offenders, and the age cut-off is usually well under 18. The types of offenses handled by the board are things like disorderly conduct, vandalism and minor schoolyard fights—as long as the fight didn't rise to the level of an assault. The board, a panel of seven members at a time, meets on the second Thursday of every month at City Hall to hear cases and mete out punishment.
“It's meant as an alternative to formal prosecution,” said Martins. “This diversion is the last bite of the apple, so to speak.” He added that to qualify for the hearing board, the offender must be willing to admit to the crime and also to waive his or her right to seek a trial in Family Court. “If someone is adamant that they are not guilty, we would tell them to go to Family Court and have a trial,” he added.
The advantage to the juvenile offender who chooses to go through the Juvenile Hearing Board is that there is no police record with the state. The arrest records are kept at the Police Department. But more important, Martins said, is the process itself, which involves the offender writing a letter of apology to the victim and performing community service. More often than not, the act of taking ownership of the wrongdoing and apologizing for it provides valuable self-reflection that has steered many away from a deviant path.
Martins estimates the success rate at over 60 percent. It's a one-time diversion, however, and anyone who doesn't complete the sanctions imposed by the hearing board, or who is arrested a second time, goes directly to Family Court.
Detective Sgt. Paul Brandley, who heads up the Police Department's Juvenile Division, said the referrals to the Juvenile Hearing Board are handled on a case-by-case basis in accordance with the nature of the crime. He said that he and Detective Chris Lefort from the Juvenile Division typically confer with the offender's family, school officials and the School Resource Officers (SROs) when they make the decision where to send the case.
“Sometimes, it's just a matter of a good kid who had a bad day,” said Brandley. He added that the SROs have a good idea of who the kids are who would benefit from their case going before the hearing board rather than to Family Court.
Brandley and Martins noted that the atmosphere of the hearing board, which takes place in the Council Chambers, adds a certain formality to the proceedings. Additionally, because the hearing board generally handles only about a half dozen cases per session, as opposed to Family Court which might hear upwards of 30, the panel spends more time talking to the offender about his or her actions and the impact on the victim.
“We involve the family. The offender must appear with a parent or guardian, and they are told they must dress and act respectfully,” said Martins. If there are other issues involved, such as drug or alcohol abuse, or mental health problems, the board will make referrals, although it can't mandate counseling. He added that the panel and police officers also have a private conference with the parent or guardian. Oftentimes, it turn out that the parent is struggling with related issues such as truancy, absenteeism, or staying out late, and the sanctions will involve things like imposing a curfew or involvement in a truancy program, said.
Brandley said the offender is always told that this is “a fork in the road” and that they must “make a choice now” about which path to take. He said the board always requires that the offender acknowledge his or her actions and offer an apology to the victim, usually through a written letter. Beyond that, sanctions can range from community service to a fine, depending on the crime. In some cases, such as a kid breaking a neighbor's window, a letter of apology is deemed to be enough, he said.
Mayor Donald Grebien said the reason that the city's Juvenile Hearing Board has endured so long “is simply because it works.” He added, “Committed volunteers serve on the board for the good of the community. The parents of the juveniles are directly involved as are the youths themselves who must acknowledge their offenses, which are relatively minor, and perform community service. The result is a second chance for these youths, who must continue to prove themselves to show they've earned it.”
Grebien added, “I strongly support the Juvenile Hearing Board, which continues to do outstanding work and has proven itself a great asset to the community.”
Diane Dufresne, the director of the Pawtucket Prevention Coalition and a member of the Juvenile Hearing Board for over 15 years, also said she believes strongly in the value of the program. “There is a general permissiveness to society today when kids do things that are wrong. And when they come before the Juvenile Hearing Board, they know they have a chance to not have a record, but they also have to own up. And they get consequences that they have to fulfill. I think that makes an indelible impression.”
“We always tell them they're lucky. And I see a lot of very nice kids who really take it to heart. They really think about it the next time,” Dufresne said.