By Marcia Moore
The Daily Item
MIDDLEBURG — Snyder County court officials are being lauded for a program that gives first-time juvenile offenders a second chance.
Launched in September 2010, the Youth Accountability Program allows nonviolent offenders between the ages of 12 and 21 an opportunity to avoid going through the traditional juvenile court system.
Instead of being brought before a judge, juvenile offenders who admit guilt are assigned to work with a three-member panel of community volunteers supervised by a probation officer.
Together, the offender and the volunteers come up with a course of action that could require community service, restitution, letters of apology, improving school grades, counseling or completing a GED. Once the work is completed after about 90 days or so, the juvenile’s record is expunged.
“These are kids. We want to give them an opportunity to keep a clean slate,” District Attorney Michael Piecuch said.
Of the 43 youths admitted to the diversion program, only one failed to complete it and had to face a judge. The recidivism rate is also quite low, said Piecuch, with only two juveniles convicted of other offenses after completing the program, which uses evidence-based practices,
Those results have caught the eye of the Juvenile Court Judges Commission, which announced it will be giving the county an award in November.
A key component of the program is the team of 12 community members — professors, school administrators, business owners and clergy — who have been trained to work with the youths and help them understand the seriousness of their actions and the impact on victims and the community.
One of the volunteers is Chuck Longwell, assistant principal at Selinsgrove Area High School, who said the juveniles he’s worked with in the program are prepared and willing to address their mistakes.
“It’s nice to give kids a different way of solving their problems rather than having them jump into the judicial system,” he said. “It’s more carrot than stick.”
Volunteer panel member Richard Davis, a business professor at Susquehanna University, said he knew of the program’s potential for success through his father’s participation in a similar effort in New Jersey about 40 years ago.
“It’s not punishment and it’s not a free pass,” said Davis, whose father worked for the FBI. “It is a rare opportunity for (young offenders) to unring the bell.”
Davis said he particularly appreciates the educational component of the program. In some instances he will have a shoplifter write a paper about the impact of his crime on the victim and the economy.
Before leaving the district attorney’s office following his 2009 election as judge, Union-Snyder President Judge Michael H. Sholley established the program’s by-laws. The groundwork that he completed made it easy for Piecuch to launch the program fairly quickly.
The benefits are simple, Sholley said: “The community sets the standard and we don’t label the child a delinquent.”
The program will be expanded next month when juveniles accused of offenses involving drug or alcohol abuse will be required to pay $250 and participate in an underage alcohol and drug education program provided by the Snyder County DUI Program and Susquehanna University.
“We’re recognizing the level of abuse and realize an educational component is just as important as the supervision component,” Piecuch said.