Juvenile court in St. Louis lets neighborhood volunteers determine the restitution sentence for some young criminals. Experts say programs like the ones in the city and county cut down on repeat offenders.
PHOTO BY KEVIN MANNING: Katie Borders, left, and Veronica Coleman grill Jenae, a fourteen-year-old girl who was charged in a shoplifting incident, about school, her friends, her relationship with her mother, and her thoughts about how her crime affected others.
By Matthew Franck
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Eight weeks after she pocketed the department store necklace that she couldn't imagine not owning, Jenae is being offered a second chance. But as the 14-year-old sits before a group of volunteers who have the power to preserve her otherwise clean record, she is a leather-clad package of adolescent attitude.
The adults who have convened for her benefit are part of a growing movement that takes matters formerly settled in juvenile court and resolves them instead in the neighborhood.
So rather than staring down a judge, Jenae (not her real name) and her mother face three adults whose biggest credential is a desire to reduce crime in the Walnut Park neighborhood of St. Louis.
They meet at Walbridge Elementary School, where Jenae once studied and now must show she is willing to make amends for her crime. If not, she risks having her case sent back to court.
But her willingness to go along isn't evident when the hearing begins. As she fiddles with her fur-lined gloves and wiggles her knee-high suede boots, Jenae surrenders only the words extracted from her one by one by prying adults.
"What were you thinking of at the time you stole the necklace?"
"The necklace, " she says.
"And how do you think the community as a whole is affected?"
"I don't know, " she replies flatly.
All in all, it's a slow start to an hour in which Jenae is supposed to see the consequences of her crime through the eyes of her victim. Beyond that, she's expected to accept a plan for restitution - and not one concocted by a judge. The plan should be offered genuinely by both Jenae and her victim.
Those marching orders ought to intimidate the three neighborhood volunteers who have met over Jenae's case. The group, called the Walnut Park Neighborhood Accountability Board, has met to consider cases just once prior to this night.
Even so, the volunteers have seen the program's potential in a young man they are working with, and they are energized by the possibilities.
Fewer repeat offenders
The panel in Walnut Park and a similar one in the Shaw Park neighborhood are the first such projects to be launched in St. Louis. Both were set up this year as an alternative to the traditional juvenile court system, which is plagued by a high reoffender rate.
Officials in St. Louis County have trumpeted success with the approach since neighborhood panels were set up there two years ago. During that time, 116 youths have been diverted from court to face their neighbors in Kirkwood, as well as in the communities served by the Webster Groves and Normandy school districts. The court is currently recruiting volunteers in the Hazelwood area.
Michelle Meyers, who heads the program for the St. Louis County Family Court, said her figures show that 94 percent of youths have complied with the terms of their restitution plans.
Nationwide, researchers also have turned up high compliance rates. And while fewer studies have been done comparing reoffender rates, some have shown promising results.
Gorden Bazemore, a leading expert on the issue from Florida Atlantic University, said studies suggest that youths in the programs are between a third and two-thirds less likely to commit crimes in the future.
Bazemore estimates that at least 780 restitution programs exist for juvenile offenders nationwide. Many boomed in the late 1990s, thanks to federal funding. But despite recent budget cuts, Bazemore said the programs continue to multiply.
In Illinois, the approach has been used in Cook County. And the project in St. Louis County is inspiring other Missouri counties to study the concept. Court officials say the project could coincide with a growing effort statewide to reduce reliance on juvenile detention.
The juvenile programs are part of a wider movement that's often referred to as restorative justice. Among the concept's central tenets is an insistence that decisions on the criminal's fate be determined - at least in part - by the victim.
To that end, Meyers said, the approach has led to high satisfaction rates among victims whose cases are sent to neighborhood boards.
Ann Warner Roberts, of the University of Minnesota's Center for Restorative Justice and Peacemaking, said the process should move beyond fixating on the punitive side of juvenile justice.
"This focuses on repairing the harm, not on the punishment, " she said.
That philosophy was evident on the night the neighborhood panel met this month in Walnut Park.
In the hour before Jenae was scheduled to atone for her shoplifting, the panel's three volunteers gathered to follow up on their first case, which they had heard last month.
The offender, a 15-year-old boy whose first name is John, was charged with being a passenger in a van stolen by his friend. John was eligible to have his case sent to the neighborhood program because - unlike the driver of the car - he does not have a prior record.
At last month's meeting, John met his victim. Together, they agreed on a simple remedy. He would pay the man $400 over the course of six months to repair damage to the van. In place of the first $50 payment, the victim agreed to allow John to rake his lawn.
Katie Borders and Rosie Patterson are the first two panel members to arrive. Both are grandmothers in the neighborhood - and not the kind who only keep an eye out for crime behind parted draperies. They have marched in the face of drug dealers, and there's not a community meeting they miss.
The two are joined later by Lamar Bailey, a block captain in the Walnut Park crime prevention effort. They share a degree of doubt over John's case in the moments before meeting with him for a progress report.
"I think he is a person who is easily led, " says Borders, just before John is invited in with his mother and sister.
The group gathers around a small oblong table in a room at Walbridge Elementary that appears to be part teachers lounge, part computer lab and part storage room. John's update is less than stellar. A cash payment of $50 has not been made. And Patterson at one point has to play drill sergeant to get the boy to exchange mere gestures for words.
In no time, the three adults - together with Veronica Coleman, who oversees the program for the juvenile court - have inserted themselves into most every aspect of John's life. They grill him on the family's recent move, his new friends, his studies and his home life.
In the process, John and his mom are able to report with pride that he complied with the requirement to rake the victim's yard. The family showed up on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. As John raked, keeping a certain distance from the victim, his mom took the time to talk with the man. She came away impressed with his concern for her son.
"He wants John to do better, " she said. "He wants John to straighten up, go to college and do something with himself."
John now admits that the thought of a victim never entered his mind on the night of his crime. "When I was involved in it, that didn't matter to me, " he said. "I just wanted the car."
In John's meeting, he agrees to continue meeting his 7 p.m. curfew and promises to provide details on how he will earn money to pay back the victim.
With that, Patterson's toughness falls away and she sends John off with a hug that lasts.
"John, you need to get it together, but remember that I love you, " she says.
With that, it's time for Jenae, who will not yield so easily to Patterson's brand of affection.
Complicating the effort to resolve Jenae's shoplifting case is the fact that no victim is present at the hearing. Jenae stands accused of taking a necklace from a Famous-Barr store, but the company has not sent a representative to the hearing.
Borders attempts to make up for the absence, by offering a lecture on the ethics of theft and its unseen victims, and assigning the girl to write an essay on the topic.
Jenae seems unmoved by the consequences of her act, but the adults in the room have an alternative strategy.
Before long, they've shifted the focus from a victimized department store to a victimized mother. They ask Jenae to contemplate the harm she has done to her mom.
The mother offers a damage assessment of her own, exposing wounds deeper than those caused by stolen jewelry.
Her daughter, as it turns out, has been running off to a friend's house for days at a time. And while Jenae still attends school, she's sometimes left her mother with no account of where she's spending the night.
Patterson sternly takes up the role of enforcer, chastising the girl for her disrespect. She can take that tough approach because she knows Jenae intimately. The two live around the corner from each other, and Patterson used to run the after-school program that Jenae attended.
She reminds the girl of the times Jenae cried out her problems with Patterson in the hallway. She tells Jenae that she's only taking an interest in her because she loves her.
She tells the tough girl that it's OK to cry. The invitation has the power of a spell, magically and instantly drawing tears.
For Coleman, who is monitoring the meeting for the court, the change is a testament to the value of bringing offenders back to the familiar faces of their own community.
"That transformation wouldn't have happened in a courtroom, " Coleman said.
Soon, Jenae is helping to sketch out the basic terms of her restitution and then is asked to leave the room. As the adults finalize the deal, they marvel at the change they saw in her.
"I think that attitude is gone, " Borders says.
A changed Jenae
The Jenae who re-enters the room to accept or reject the restitution plan is talkative, smiling and shows a playfulness that reflects her age.
Even so, she challenges some of the details of the plan - such as a requirement that she call Patterson daily by 4 p.m. to tell her how her day has been.
She also must cut off all contact with the people she had been spending the night with, be home by 7 p.m. each night and complete an essay on respecting her mother.
They fuss over the exceptions to the rules - whether the essay must be typed and if the curfew is an absolute.
But Jenae relents with a willingness that suggests she welcomes the attention.
Then - like John 90 minutes before her - she accepts a hug from Patterson and is on her way.
As the girl and her mother head out for the short walk home, they are greeted outside by the circling lights of police cars.
The details wouldn't be known until later, but during their time in the school a 17-year-old girl was fatally shot on a front porch just yards away. Police believe the young killer - who also wounded a 16-year-old youth - lashed out after an argument.
But Jenae and her mother seem absorbed in each other as they walk around police tape, talking of a better future for themselves. They don't give the crime scene a second look.
return to matthewfranck.com