Citizens’ board holds youthful offenders accountable

Milton-Freewater has adopted a program to steer first-time offenders away from crime.

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MILTON-FREEWATER — Police Chief Doug Boedigheimer has seen it time and again — “hardened adult criminals in a kid’s body.”

Mostly this rural town is populated with people trying to raise their kids right, he said, but “three to five percent of our kids might have that criminal mind set.”

Yet when a community can come together to divert a teen from a dangerous path, it benefits the town and the future of everyone in it, said Boedigheimer.

That’s the thrust of Milton-Freewater’s Community Accountability Board that began in November with an $8,000 grant from Umatilla County. The goal is to keeping youths away from crime and give them an opportunity to repair the harm they’ve caused if they commit an offense.

Running the board costs the city next to nothing, Boedigheimer said. Members are volunteers and he offers his help off the clock.

To lodge area youths at the Juvenile Justice Center in Walla Walla County, on the other hand, costs Umatilla County $51,050 a year, guaranteeing one bed a day, according to Debbie Kelley, juvenile diversion coordinator and probation officer with Walla Walla County Department of Court Services.

From June 30, 2011, to July 1, 2012, according to figures she provided, 86 Umatilla County youths spent a total of 174 days at the justice center.

The accountability board is a state-approved group of five citizens who evaluate cases in which youths have committed minor offenses for the first time and decide how they will make amends. Those crimes run the gamut of possessing alcohol, shoplifting and minor assault, all issues that can open the door to bigger problems, Boedigheimer said.

Board action begins after police respond to an incident, cite the offender and hand a report to the chief.

From there, Boedigheimer evaluates which teens might benefit from accountability board action and notifies their parents.

In a letter he sends out, he gives it to them straight: “At the meeting (your child) will be expected to be open and honest about his/her behavior and actions ... Lack of honesty or cooperation will result in the case being withdrawn from CAB and forwarded to Umatilla County Juvenile for prosecution.”

It’s a heads up to moms and dads that their kid is in serious trouble and they, too, are expected to be part of the solution, he said. Parental support of the process and whatever sanctions are handed down from the citizen board is crucial to the success of the intervention.

“If a family doesn’t seem cooperative, we’ll probably just hand that case over to juvenile justice,” Boedigheimer said. “Otherwise it would be a waste of effort.”

Daniel Robertson, chief of operations for facilities services with Oregon Youth Authority, said his office sees the cases that don’t have, or cannot benefit from, such community correction. The Youth Authority imposes the highest levels of security and structure for youth offenders in various facilities across the state.

Local accountability is the “very starting point of a diversion program and we’re on the other end,” he said.

Community intervention, done at its earliest and most robust, greatly increases the probability a youth is “not going to continue with criminal behavior,” he added

Barring serious criminal acts, the importance of such involvement in minor offenses cannot be overstated.

“Especially in a small community,” Roberts said. “It’s not a huge city so these kids are not isolated from their neighbors,” meaning those disobeying laws can be led to clearly see the damage they have done to their families and town.

Boedigheimer said he has yet to meet a parent ungrateful for his or her child’s second chance. So far, most have proven to be harder on their law-breaking offspring than his board can legally be. “In appropriate ways,” he added.

Steve Timmons does much of the talking to offenders in Milton-Freewater’s accountability meetings, beginning with setting the standard, he said. A business owner and father of three, he tells offenders appearing before him that he expects no gum chewing, no hats, no slouching and to wear appropriate clothing.

“I ask them for direct eye contact.” Timmons said. “They are not allowed to look at their shoes. I tell them ‘It’s not the floor you’re talking to, it’s me.’”

The board is not meant to be punitive, but teens see it as law when the sanctions are handed down. Those include handwritten, single-spaced letters of apology to parents and any victims, essays on the topic or the law they violated and sometimes hours of community service, Boegdigheimer said.

The goal, however, is not to make sanctions overwhelming.

“We don’t want these kids to stop their lives. They shouldn’t be indentured,” he said. “I want them to comply, but we want them to be kids. In normal, legal ways.”

Board members also look at a child’s school attendance and grades, and watch for anyone coming in with “attitude,” he said. “A kid has to own up and be remorseful. Otherwise they will not gather anything of value.”

Timmons said he tells offenders he sees to it that any dishonesty to the board will not pan out.

“We have the arrest report in front of us. And it’s a small town. I see these kids, so they see me,” he said.

Timmons said his involvement is worth every minute he puts in: “If it impacts one kid, it’s successful.”

It’s early in the process, and most of the two dozen youths who have been through the process are still working their program, Boedigheimer said. So far, he’s yet to see the same face a second time around. “They’re still on their toes.”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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