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A Criminal Development

Just Youth is one of Vermont's best deterrents to juvenile crime. Can the state afford to let it close?


Published June 4, 2003 at 8:14 p.m.

Hers was not a crime of passion. A crime of fashion was more like it. About a year ago, Marcie Nash walked out of Filene's department store in Burlington with a bathing suit she didn't need and never paid for. Nash, who was 15 at the time, had never been in trouble with the police before. She and her best friend thought shoplifting was "kind of like a game," she now admits. But it was no game when a Burlington police officer showed up to handcuff her and take her down to the station.

Nash was lucky. Rather than bringing her to family court on a juvenile delinquency charge, the officer referred the case to Just Youth, a project run by Spectrum Youth and Family Services of Burlington. Just Youth intervenes in petty juvenile offenses that would otherwise clog up a family court system that is already overburdened. To qualify for Just Youth, offenders must be under 17 and have committed a minor, nonviolent crime such as vandalism, petty larceny or trespassing. Most are first offenders.

Within 48 hours of a referral, a Just Youth caseworker contacts the youth's parents, the victims and anyone else in the community affected by the crime. The project is voluntary, but in order to participate the youth must accept full responsibility for his or her actions. Then, with the involvement and consent of everyone involved -- including the victim and the offender -- Just Youth helps them devise a plan for making amends. The entire process is wrapped up in 90 days, if not sooner. Assuming, that is, Just Youth continues to operate.

Every year, about 130 kids in Chittenden County are referred to Just Youth by police officers, school officials and the state's attorney. Of those, about 100 successfully complete the project. In the five years since it began, Just Youth has earned a reputation throughout Vermont as one of most successful and cost-effective tools for fighting juvenile crime. Other programs around the state have already been modeled after it. Judges and state's attorneys like it because it reduces their caseloads and frees them up for more serious offenses. Victims like it because it allows them to face their offender, have a say in what happens to the youth and get compensated for their losses. Teens and parents like it because it lets them avoid the consequences of family court and a juvenile record.

Police like Just Youth because it gives them another tool for intervening with young offenders before they commit more serious crimes. Social workers like it because it brings troubled teens to their attention earlier so they can get them the services they need, like mental- health counseling or substance-abuse treatment. And everyone agrees that the program makes kids better citizens by holding them accountable for their behavior and showing them how their actions affect their community.

What's the catch? Funding. On May 7, Just Youth sent out letters informing police chiefs, judges, schools and the state's attorney that they can no longer accept referrals because their grant money ran out. If Just Youth cannot come up with $60,000 by Aug. 1, the project will be forced to close its doors. And everyone who works in juvenile justice in Chittenden County says that would be nothing short of criminal. "Here's an example of a great project that's falling by the wayside because we've failed to fund it," says Sgt. Tom Fraga, a youth-crime prevention officer with the South Burlington Police Department.

Much of Just Youth's popularity lies in its emphasis on restorative justice. "The idea is that people and relationships have been harmed," explains Hillary Kramer, co-coordinator of Just Youth and one of its founders. "In the traditional criminal justice system, a crime is a violation against the state. So if I hit you, we're not thinking about you as much as I've committed an assault and I go to court for it. But you're still bummed out because I hit you."

Unlike a retributive, or "eye-for-an-eye" approach, Just Youth tries to heal the injury that's occurred between the offender and the victim by involving both in the restitution process -- assuming the victim wants to be involved. Traditionally, juvenile offenses are dealt with in closed-court proceedings where neither the victim nor the arresting officer participates. As Kramer explains, this can be unsettling and frustrating for victims, because often they don't know whether they were singled out or just the unlucky target of a random act.

"In Chittenden County, particularly in a small community, often the victim and offender have had contact before," Kramer says. "It could be kids who see each other in school, a local store owner or a neighbor. So it's really wonderful to bring them together and give them an opportunity to do some healing together."

Just Youth provides the offender with an immediate consequence for his or her crime, unlike family court, where six months might elapse between the time of the offense and its resolution. More importantly, Just Youth puts a human face on the crime. Marcie Nash already knew that shoplifting was wrong, but Just Youth helped her to understand why. Part of her restitution plan required her to interview other store owners and find out the impact shoplifting has on their businesses. "I guess when people steal things, the price of everything goes up, and I never knew that," says Nash. "So it affects everyone."

Just Youth also tries to identify the strengths of the youth and, whenever possible, incorporate them into the restitution plan. For example, if a teen is good at woodworking, restitution may include doing woodwork for the victim and other community members. When Just Youth staff follow up later with victims, nearly all involved report they were "very satisfied" with the outcome.

Mariellen Woods is a co-coordinator of Just Youth and the project's social worker. "The last family group conference that I had, a security guard at the store said to me, 'I had given up hope on teens. But you've really shown me that youth do care and they make mistakes. That makes my job worth doing,'" Woods says. "To me, that shows a high measure of satisfaction."

How effective is Just Youth at reducing crime? Just ask the project's most vocal supporters -- police officers in Chittenden County who deal with juvenile offenders every day. Kim Edwards is a detective with the Burlington Police Department who was referring between 30 and 50 cases to Just Youth every year. "It's hard to measure crimes that aren't going on," she admits. "But for us at Burling-ton Police, we see the effects of Just Youth are so far-reaching. The re-offending rate is very low."

Even without statistics to back her up, Edwards says the effects of Just Youth are obvious. Recently, two sisters who stole something together requested a meeting with her to apologize for their actions. "When kids see the bigger picture, they have some ownership in their community. Just from meeting these girls I think they are better citizens for having gone through Just Youth, and we won't see them again," Edwards says. "If we lose that, we're doing a disservice to the youth of our community. They deserve that chance."

Other police officers in Chittenden County tell similar stories. Kurt Miglinas, a youth officer with the Essex Police Department, was at a speaking engagement two months ago when he was approached by a teen he had referred to Just Youth several years earlier. "The youth said, 'It made a real difference for me. Now I have goals. I'm getting an education, I'm getting a career, and Just Youth had a lot to do with it,'" Miglinas recalls. "For me, that was great to hear -- and I didn't go looking for it. How many more kids out there are doing well that we don't hear about?"

Marcie Nash seems to be on a similar path. After successfully completing her Just Youth program, she voluntarily returned to do community service as part of her health class requirement. When that was completed, she kept visiting Just Youth. Now, she spends about two hours there each week serving as a peer leader for other girls just starting the program. She says Just Youth gives them a place where they can talk openly about drugs, sex, peer pressure and other concerns -- confidentially and without anyone passing judgment.

Marcie's mother, Paula, is thrilled with the influence that Stephanie Puchner, Just Youth's case manager, has had on her daughter. "Once Marcie started with Stephanie and Just Youth, she soared," says Paula Nash. "It's like a family atmosphere over there. There's no one talking down to the kids. The kids respect everybody there because they respect the kids, which makes all the difference in the world."

Recently, Marcie discovered an interest in cooking and signed up for culinary classes at Essex Technical Center. Although she's a few credits short of getting in for the fall, she plans to attend summer school to make them up. "None of my friends are going to summer school. That's how badly I want it," Marcie says. Though she's only a sophomore, Marcie is already talking about attending the New England Culinary Institute when she graduates.

In some respects, Marcie is typical of many of the teens who go through Just Youth -- a good kid who made one bad decision. According to Puchner, plenty of them come from good homes with loving, supportive parents. Some are straight-A students, star athletes or active in other after-school activities. Sometimes, their offenses weren't grave enough to land them in family court but required more of a response than just a scolding from their parents.

But while Just Youth keeps some kids out of the system who don't need to be there, it also help kids who might otherwise slip through the cracks. "Just because a kid commits a petty crime, that doesn't mean they're headed to become Jack the Ripper," says Dave Martin, casework supervisor with Vermont's Social and Rehabilitative Services (SRS). "What it does mean, though, is that maybe there's something else going on."

Those cases come across Martin's desk every day -- young people with mental-health issues, substance-abuse problems, victims of abuse or neglect. He knows that without early intervention, many will eventually end up in the Woodside juvenile facility or prison. What he likes about Just Youth is that it identifies those needs early and intervenes at a critical time -- before the kids commit more serious offenses.

Martin isn't surprised that in the last few years Chit-tenden County has seen a steady decline in its juvenile probation caseload. Though he can't say why without conducting a detailed study of the data, he strongly suspects Just Youth had a lot to do with it. Unfortunately, no one has crunched the numbers on Just Youth's recidivism rate. In part this is because of confidentiality issues -- one goal of the project is to avoid entering kids into a computer system and giving them a juvenile record. More likely, though, it's because the police, SRS and Just Youth simply don't have the time or resources to do it. Just Youth operates with only one full-time case manager and one part-time supervisor. Apart from employee benefits and some minor travel expenses, there are no other costs.

"The benefits far outweigh whatever it costs for that program," concludes Miglinas of the Essex PD. "I think every county in the state of Vermont should have a program like Just Youth, I really do. I've worked with them for four years and the value is there."

So why has Just Youth lost its funding? Unfortunately, the organization that provided its start-up money -- the Children and Family Council for Prevention Programs -- cannot afford to permanently fund it. According to Susan Kamp, who chairs the Council board, federal dollars have dried up and private contributions are down by at least a third this year.

Mark Redmond, the new executive director of Spectrum Youth and Family Services, cites the same usual suspects that are hammering all nonprofits: a cash-strapped state budget, the decline in the stock market and cuts in federal funding due to the war in Iraq.

In the meantime, the state's attorney's office is trying to figure out how to handle the influx of new cases. Susan Hardin, deputy state's attorney in Chittenden County, says she's already seeing an increase in her caseload. She figures it's bound to get worse. "Which leaves me in a tough position. If I file all these cases, I'll clog up an already overloaded juvenile system," Hardin says. "If I don't do anything, does the child get away with it? We don't want to send that message, either."

For their part, police officers have begun approaching the Department of Corrections' reparative boards to see if they can pick up some of the overflow. But reparative boards, which were designed for adult probationers, really aren't equipped to handle juvenile offenders. "Right now these kids have non-critical needs that could very well become critical needs if we ignore them," argues Fraga of the South Burlington PD. "The fact is, we're losing some really well-trained professionals in the Just Youth project that we won't duplicate quickly in any other program."

While it won't be easy finding $60,000 to keep Just Youth afloat, advocates agree that figure is a drop in the bucket compared to what the project's loss will likely cost taxpayers -- and kids -- down the road. "You know when there are problems in the world and you say, 'This isn't solvable?' Well, we have a problem here that's totally solvable," Kramer says. "The minute someone says they can fund our project, we're back in action. It's that simple."