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[whitespace] Project gives youthful lawbreakers a break of their own

Teens work with the crime victim, members of community to fix mistakes they made

Willow Glen--Willow Glen teens, who get in trouble with the law, are getting a chance to fix what they've done and try again, without entering the juvenile justice system.

As of earlier this year, minor offenders now have the option of participating in the county probation department's Restorative Justice Program. This project tries to catch youth after their first criminal incident, help them understand the consequences of their actions, and provide support to fill the gaps in their lives, in an effort to reduce juvenile crime.

Erik Valeriano is the program community coordinator for the Willow Glen and the Washington areas and, this summer, the downtown areas, as well. He says the goal of the project is to help teens before they commit worse crimes and to involve those affected most by the incident: the victims and the neighborhood.

"Crime breaks relationships," Valeriano says. "It damages victims in the community. We want to turn it back to the community--taking care of its own people."

Too often, he says, the victims of crime, and other members of the community, are excluded from the process of resolving the situation. They don't get a chance to express how this incident has hurt them, and, consequently, the perpetrators don't get to learn the larger implications of their actions.

The Restorative Justice Program plans to avoid those pitfalls by bringing the youth, his or her family and the victim together with a Neighborhood Advisory Board--a group of local volunteer community members. Together, all the parties work to come up with a contract the youth can fulfill, in order to make things right and remove the incident from his or her criminal record.

Willow Glen resident Samuel Mathis (not his real name) participated in Willow Glen's first restorative justice case in February. Mathis, 16, is a high school student, and one evening in January he and two of his friends, also high school students, were looking for something to do.

They decided to go "egging"--throwing raw eggs at cars and other objects in their neighborhood. They hopped in a car, bought some cartons of eggs, and headed out to paint the town, well, eggy.

Willow Glen resident Steven Jackson was relaxing in his home at about 9:30 p.m. that evening, when his wife, Michele, came in from the garage to tell him she thought she heard someone egging his car, which was parked in the street. Jackson says, in the 15 years he has lived in his home, he has had his car egged "at least four or five times"--three of which happened in the past year alone. He says he has also had his car broken into three times while it was parked outside his house.

Frustrated that it had happened yet again, Jackson hosed off the car and, guessing the culprits were teens who would come back to view their handiwork, hid in the car to wait for them.

It wasn't long before he saw headlights coming at the car from both directions and heard eggs splat against what he thought was his car, he says.

It was Mathis and his friends, but they had actually hit the car parked behind his and then continued down the street to egg the windshield of the car driving toward them.

Jackson started his car and tried to track them down, while his wife called the police. Unsuccessful, he returned to his house and the police showed up, took a report and then left.

"I thought I'd never hear another thing," he says.

But, 10 minutes later, one of the cops returned with a handcuffed juvenile in the backseat. Two more officers showed up, each with another juvenile. The police had identified Mathis and his friends by the eggshell on the side of their own car and the cartons of eggs inside it.

Jackson says the three youths pleaded with him not to press charges, but he felt it had happened to him one too many times, and he told them they had to face the consequences of their actions.

So the police took them to their homes in handcuffs and "scared the crap out of them," Mathis' mother Alice (also not her real name) says.

"The whole thing is a little bit ridiculous," she says. "They got caught doing something really harmless. But they learned a really good lesson."

Because Mathis and one of his friends are Willow Glen residents--the other friend lives in Monte Sereno and was ineligible for the program--they were both under 17 years old, and the incident was their first offense and a nonviolent misdemeanor, their cases were referred to Valeriano's co-worker, deputy probation officer Victoria Rivera.

She met with them and their parents and determined they were willing to take responsibility for what they had done and would work to repair the damage. Then she explained they had a choice. Their cases could either go through juvenile hall; they would be required to do 40 hours of community service; they would be on probation for two years, or until they turn 18; and the case would remain on their records. Or, they could try the Restorative Justice Program.

Both opted for the project. Their cases were then sent to the project's Neighborhood Accountability Board in Willow Glen, which then set up a conference between each of the youths, the victim and several of their own representatives.

Mark Magner, a former juvenile probation officer, is a member of Willow Glen's board who decided to volunteer with the program last fall.

"A young person, as a part of growing up, has to understand that their behavior has consequences in the wider community," he says, to explain why two or three people who weren't involved in the incident participate in these conferences. "Whenever there's a law violation, the community suffers."

Valeriano says that victims aren't required to appear at the conference. They can either share their feelings about the crime by letter or verbally to the probation officer, he says.

Jackson was interested in participating in the program, however. He went to Willow Glen Middle School, where the conferences are held, about a month after the egging incident, got to meet Mathis and his friend and explain why their mistake caused him to press charges. He says he was surprised to find out just who the two are.

"These kids were good kids, they go to [a Catholic school], they did volunteer work," he says. "I couldn't believe it."

Alice says Jackson told her son that if he'd known they weren't thugs, he wouldn't have pressed charges.

Then Mathis and Jackson, with help from the advisory board, came up with a contract for Mathis to complete. He had to pay $17, or one third of the cost for Jackson to get his car washed, write a letter of apology, and give a presentation to a fourth-grade class about what he did.

Mathis completed the entire contract about a month later and the incident was removed from his record. As long as he doesn't re-offend in the next two years, or before he turns 18, it will stay off his record, Valeriano says.

In addition to helping the youth resolve his crime, Valeriano says, the program also provides the youth with resources and support--academic help, counseling and activities that build on their strengths and talents--to keep them from resorting to crime in the future. Two youth intervention workers work with the teens. and follow up to make sure they complete their contracts and stay out of trouble, he says.

"Of course, we're not going to change their lives in three months," Valeriano says. "The idea is to connect them with some sort of service, or role model, that can keep working with them."

He says that, since its inception, the county's program has had an 88 percent success rate--youth who have completed their contract and haven't re-offended. In addition, in the participating communities, the number of teens referred to the program has fallen by almost 20 percent, and the number of teens referred to the California Youth Authority has gone down 60 percent.

The Willow Glen program has had about 15 teens participating so far, Valeriano says, and they expect that number to increase as the program grows. Most of the youth violators have committed crimes, such as vandalism, as with Mathis, petty theft, fighting or physical assault, and being under the influence, or in the possession, of marijuana, Valeriano says.

He adds that most juvenile crime in Willow Glen is related to drugs and vandalism, while most juvenile crime in his other neighborhood--Washington, east of Highway 87--is petty theft and fighting. The two neighborhoods have a similar number of youth crime incidents, he says.

Valeriano says the project came about after the county board of corrections asked the juvenile justice coordinating panel to come up with a strategy to reduce youth crime. In early 1997, the panel returned with an action plan for the restorative justice project.

The project was piloted three years ago in Gilroy and San Jose's Burbank and Mayfair neighborhoods. It proved so successful that it has since expanded into many other areas of the county, and, by July, should include the entire county, thanks to an additional $3 million of state funding, Valeriano says.

One of his biggest challenges with the program isn't getting youth to participate, so much as getting neighborhood adults to volunteer on the advisory board. So far, he says he has about 12 volunteers and he could easily stand to double that. Volunteers must go to an orientation meeting, submit an application, have a background check to make sure they aren't on probation or parole, participate in a 12-hour training process and commit to a year of six hours volunteering per month.

Jackson says he was so impressed with his experience with the project that, just last month, he completed the process and became a member of the Willow Glen advisory board.

Jackson works as a light rail operator and instructor, and says he sees teens misbehaving on the trains. He can relate, he adds, because, as a teen, he was no stranger to trouble.

"In my job I see a lot of juveniles get arrested or not arrested," he says. "When you approach them from the community, you help them realize, 'I'm not messing with the train, I'm messing with everybody who rides the train.' I wish I had this when I was a kid."

He acknowledges that the program won't work for every youth. But he and Magner both note that, if it weren't for programs like this, some teens would never get the help they need through traditional responses to juvenile crime--there are just too many in the system for the limited number of workers to handle.

As for Mathis, he says he's glad he did the program. His mother, Alice, adds that it was a lot more difficult than they expected, more difficult than the 40 hours of community service his friend in Monte Sereno had to do.

"This was harder on our son, to have to stand up in front of people and tell what he did wrong," she says. "He really had to think about what he did. This took a lot of time from my husband and myself, as well."

Alice says she still "cannot believe the guy pressed charges" for just "throwing an egg," but both she and her son are glad that what happened has been resolved and is not still hanging over their heads.

And Samuel Mathis is sure about one thing.

"I wouldn't do egging again," he says.

The next Neighborhood Advisory Board volunteer orientation is May 16, at the Burbank/Midtown Community Justice Center at 105 N. Bascom Ave., suite 104, in San Jose, from 7 to 9 p.m. Call 408.298.3174 for more information.
Kate Carter

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Web extra to the May 3-9, 2001 issue of Metro.

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