A project that began in Tucson and has ties to the University of Arizona will be honored later this month for helping to address juvenile crime.
The Community Justice Boards were selected by Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the Governor's Commission on Service and Volunteerism for the 2010 Governor's Volunteer Service Award according to the Pima County Attorney's Office where the program is based. The award will be presented to the program's organizers on April 20.
Chris Segrin, the head of the UA communication department, currently serves on one of the 21 community justice boards in Pima County and is one of the project's most enthusiastic backers. Segrin, who has volunteered his time for the last two years and now co-chairs the Romero board, also encourages his students to participate.
The boards together hear about 400 of the approximately 2,000 cases that come to the juvenile court system each year. The cases that come before them are for kids between ages 8 and 17 who have been arrested for minor crimes - misdemeanors or Class 6 felonies - such as criminal trespass, property damage, simple assault, shoplifting or marijuana possession.
The program isn't open to everyone. Most repeat offenders and those charged with more serious crimes go directly to juvenile court.
Volunteers from communities throughout Pima County are trained to hold family conferences to learn more about the young offenders, their families and the circumstances surrounding their crime.
The boards assign "consequences," age and developmentally appropriate sanctions that are designed not just to hold young offenders accountable, but also to help them build life skills and pursue education.
The Community Justice Boards, or CJB, system began in Pima County in 1998. The program, said Segrin, mirrors those used in American Indian communities where civic involvement is often a key component in dealing with juvenile justice. "In many tribal law contexts, offenders are brought before members of their own community, literally members of your neighborhood, town elders, who will then assign consequences," he said.
Boards are staffed by volunteers, and save the county potentially millions of dollars in personnel fees and processing. "It is a very efficient mechanism that uses the concept of putting an offender before community members in a very literal sense."
Some of Segrin's students also are involved and get course credit for internships. "We have student interns who serve usually for two semesters and play a variety of roles.
"They tell me they are absolutely fascinated by it. It's just a magnetic experience that draws people in. And that opportunity to see troubled youths turn their lives around, even if it is in small steps, they absolutely love that," he said.
Everyone on the five-to-seven member boards has a role and specializes in different functions. A greeter explains the hearing process to the youth and family members while escorting them to the board room. A victim liaison contacts people who have been victimized by an offender to ask if they want to attend or speak at hearings. A community service liaison contacts local community organizations looking for volunteer opportunities for offenders.
"Instead of saying ‘You committed a crime, now go pick up trash here for five hours in the hot sun,' we try to give them activities, what we call ‘consequences,' that will steer them in a direction that would be useful for their vocation or goals," Segrin said. A young person with an interest in animals might be assigned 20 hours of volunteer work at the Animal Control Center.
Segrin also steers these young people to the UA and other higher education environments. "It opens a lot of eyes and minds. We need to get more of these people into higher education to break these cycles of trouble with the law or substance abuse. A lot of people live in environments that are not very stimulating. And left to their own devices, they'll just coast in that environment. We try to get them to get outside of that," he said.
Rebecca Wortell is one of Segrin's students and one of more than 30 UA students volunteering on local boards. Wortell, the community service liaison for the Romero board, said the young people she works to help aren't the only ones whose lives have changed.
"This is the most amazing experience of my life," Wortell said. "I have learned so much about myself and how well I am able to connect and talk with juveniles. Without this experience I don't think I would be as confident in my communications skills as I am now."
"Rebecca and the others are learning about the criminal justice system, about families in distress, youth and adolescents, so it's a valuable experience," said Segrin. Some of his former students who have since graduated and gone on to full-time jobs still volunteer on boards.
Asked if the CJBs affect recidivism rates, Segrin said young people who go through the CJB diversion program are generally less likely to be rearrested, but adds, "It's complicated. I'm a statistician and, believe me, I look at these things with a careful eye."
Comparing young, first-time offenders charged with minor crimes to dangerous felons isn't quite fair, he said.
"One reason for that is if you are under 18 and go to juvenile court, you get shuffled around, shuffle papers, pay a fine and maybe stand in front of a judge for 10 minutes. We work with youth and their families for up to 90 days. So they get way, way more personal attention from us and the consequences are spread out longer. We have 90 days to monitor what they're doing in school, how they're doing with their family and I think that is one main reason for the better recidivism rate," Segrin said.
Offenders cut across the entire profile of the community, from the barrios to the foothills. But overall, Segrin said parents regularly tell him that the CJB process completely transforms their children, making them more serious about school and life goals. Some parents who struggle with raising children say that the board process is the first time anyone has taken an interest in their, and their child's, welfare.
Disappointments are rare. In Segrin's two years with the CJB, only two young people have signed up for the diversion program and then refused to cooperate.
"The benefit of doing this is you get your record expunged on your 18th birthday. This is literally a ‘Get Out of Jail Free' card that's handed to them, and they burn it. So, when you see that, it's frustrating."
The successes from the program, however, clearly outweigh the losses, he said. Segrin is buoyed by the interest shown by other communities around the U.S. in the CJB program and have visited Tucson to learn how it works.
In addition, the Pima County Attorney's Office has been developing funding avenues that would provide the CJBs with money for grants for a variety of diversion programs that require enrollment fees. The program currently operates "on a shoestring," Segrin said.
"What is most rewarding is seeing a youth rise above it all. I've seen many kids get that, seen them figure it out," he said.
"The growth of the program has been a pleasant surprise," said Chad Marchand, a former prosecutor who is the program coordinator for the CJB. "The County Attorney had hoped that it would take off in popularity, and it has. We also can credit the great departments and staff of the University of Arizona in their effort to promote us in classrooms, through listservs and via e-mail. This has truly been a community effort in the expansion process."
By Jeff Harrison, University Communications April 4, 2010