By Cate Huisman
On Wednesday evenings, you can see them waiting in chairs lined up outside a meeting room at the county courthouse: nervous youngsters, flanked by family members, often with younger siblings playing on the floor or fidgeting in a parent’s lap. They clutch yellow folders full of papers for which, they know, they must be responsible. This is their only chance. They are waiting their turns to go before the Bonner County Youth Accountability Board (YAB).
YAB began in 1980 as a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders. It was somewhat revolutionary at the time, says Judy Chittick, its secretary and a member for 25 years.
The idea was to keep youngsters who had done one imprudent thing out of the juvenile court system, and refer them instead to a volunteer group of concerned citizens from their community.
Let’s say you’re a teen or preteen who has succumbed to peer pressure to do something illegal, or maybe, through mischief or experimentation, you’ve damaged some property. You have shoplifted, or broken into an empty house, or––like two boys in a case many years ago––you taped together a bunch of fireworks, lit the fuse, and tossed the bundle into a toilet at the City Beach bathhouse just to see what would happen.
You have never done anything like this before (or at least, you’ve not been caught doing anything like this), and you (and your parents) are appalled when the cops come for you. When you realize you will have to appear at the courthouse, you know you are in deep trouble.
But when you reach the courthouse, a miracle occurs. You are told that since this is your first offense, if you admit to it, you can go before the Youth Accountability Board instead of going before a judge. If you successfully complete your contract with YAB, you will have no court record. This will be your only chance, ever, to avoid going to court and having a record for doing a dumb thing that you have been wondering, ever since, why you did.
A key to being selected for YAB is that you admit your guilt only informally. There is no actual plea, no petition, and no record that you have ever been to court, explains Ron Stultz, Director of Bonner County Justice Services. The benefit of this for “kids that made a one-time stupid choice,” as Stultz describes them, are huge. A significant body of research indicates that lower-level offenders do not benefit from county supervision and contact with their peers who have committed higher-level offenses. In fact, the reverse is often true.
“When you put them through the system, you may be doing more harm than good,” notes Bonner County Magistrate Judge Lori Meulenberg, who has seen her share of youngsters pass through that system.
For first-timers whose offenses are not violent or drug-related, YAB can be a much more constructive option. The process “is about taking responsibility, learning, and giving back,” explains board member Mary Toland. At those Wednesday evening appearances, the board listens to each youthful offender describe what happened, it listens to the concerns of the child’s family, and then the members confer to decide on a contract. A contract typically includes a required number of hours of community service, a letter of apology to the victim or others who had to deal with the consequences of the offense, and an essay––the board members choose a subject––as a chance for the youngsters to reflect on their actions. “When we reflect, it cements our learning,” says Toland. “It helps us recognize the choices that we made and consider positive choices for the future.”
One advantage of YAB is that it saves the county money. Stultz estimates that the cost to run these lower-level offenders through the court system, including court time, secretarial time, and the time of a probation officer, amounts to about $225 per youngster. Last year, 33 kids successfully fulfilled their contracts with YAB, saving the county approximately $7425.
But for YAB members, the point is much more about a community helping its young people to grow into responsible adults.
“YAB gives youth a gateway to stand in and look at their options for the future,” says the board’s current coordinator, Dan Krabacher. “Often, when we ask why they did what they did, their answer is ‘I don’t know.’ For all of us on the board, that is an inadequate response. They have to know, they have to explore why they made those decisions.”
Krabacher continues: “We help youth understand that all people make mistakes, and that’s what they’ve done. We give them an opportunity to correct their mistakes in a way that makes them feel good about themselves.” When they complete their contracts, “They have contributed to the community and are full citizens.”
Some members have been on the board for more than a quarter century, and it is actively seeking new members of all ages, including high-schoolers. Toland describes what they’re looking for: “You need to bring an open mind and be nonjudgmental,” she says. “The two times [per month] we meet can be long and a bit intense sometimes; you listen to some heart-wrenching stories, and you need to be able to hold things in confidence.”
And more than anything, says Toland you need to “have an optimistic spirit. It really is about growth and change.”
Writer Cate Huisman served on the Youth Accountability Board from approximately 2003 to 2008. The current coordinator, Dan Krabacher, is her husband. Readers who may want to serve on the board are encouraged to contact him at (208) 290-6319 or [email protected]