"Everything that is really great and inspiring is created by the individual who can labor in freedom" Albert Einstein

"A dame who knows the ropes isn't likely to get tied up." Mae West

Friday, November 21, 2008

Washing away the sins of youth

A group of high school teenagers was happily washing windows of the stores in the downtown business district. Most of the kids were from good families and seemed to be enjoying both the work and the camaraderie. Owners of those establishments, including myself, were caught off guard with this generosity. Many of us offered them some compensation for their work, but they refused. The business community was abuzz about the fine young people we have in our community.

By happenstance, I discovered the truth weeks later. All of these kids were in a required community service program through the county probation diversion program. All had been drunk and arrested while attending an under-aged party out in the country. If they performed community service, charges would be expunged from their records.

Yesterday, I attended an event in which a county probation officer, explained the diversion and Restorative Justice programs the county offers to juveniles and adults. It was explained that these programs are highly successful and that the recidivism rate in our county is only 21% after one year of completing the program. The probation officer emphasized the word "shame" as a large contribution to the success rate. Doing community service and facing your victims in private controlled confrontations supposedly "shame" the perpetrators into being sorry.

Skeptic that I am, I questioned some of the statistics and the public "shame." First of all, these programs are voluntary, meaning the perpetrators can opt out and go straight to court taking their chances with a good attorney, so the success rate might be skewed because you have willing participants, some who may be genuinely sorry in the first place.

Secondly, I questioned the "shame" put upon these perpetrators. I sighted the above example in this post. The downtown business people certainly saw no guilt in those teens washing windows; they were having a great time. In fact, they were admired by those observing them. They were not humiliatingly marked with a scarlet letter telling the public they were bad boys, and I certainly did not see a probation officer in the vicinity as they were working. Perhaps he was hiding.

In the Restorative Justice program, the meeting between perpetrators and victims is closed to all outsiders, except a mediator and several other community members. Nothing decided in that meeting is made public. The "shame" only occurs if the perpetrator later happens to meet the victim or those other community members elsewhere. There is no real public shame.

The speaker mentioned that several 13-14 year olds recently went on a vandalism crime spree and were facing 5 felony counts. They went through the Restorative Justice program so now they have no criminal record. The victims have been compensated. Although a perpetrator can go through a county Restorative Justice program only once, there is no database, so if he commits a crime in another county he might receive another get out of jail free card. If the family moves often enough, a 13 year old could commit numerous felonies and not ever have a record by the time he's 18.

The proponents of these programs overlook a couple of things in my opinion:

Monetary or service compensation does not put a victim back into the same emotional position as before the crime. Fear, mistrust, and stress cannot necessarily be resolved through compensation. So the program doesn't help the victim emotionally any more than a trial.

Shame should be more public and it will have greater effect. Shame should not be vague and misunderstood. It should be blatant.

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