Every month, a small number of Hermiston youths are given the chance of their young lives – whether they know it or not.
They are juvenile offenders and the crimes they’ve committed range anywhere from theft to minor in possession. And if they meet a set of specific criteria, the chance they are given is to essentially wipe the slate clean and get a fresh start on the right path.
It’s all part of the Community Accountability Board (CAB), a partnership between parents, the school district and the criminal justice system aimed at taking first-time offenders and working with them to ensure that their first offense is also their last offense.
“It provides a different avenue for the kids and it helps them see they’re getting a second chance,” said CAB member Maria Durón. “If this helps them from continuing in a bad direction – what a great thing!”
And the numbers show the program is working in spectacular fashion. According to statistics from the Hermiston Police Department, total juvenile offenses dropped from 879 in 2011 to 775 in 2012 – an 11.83 percent decrease, and a 27.5 percent drop from 2007’s figure of 1,069 (2008 was the first year of the CAB in Hermiston).
The idea behind the CAB is to take first-time juvenile offenders out of the criminal justice system and put them into a diversion program while still holding them accountable for their offenses.
“The kids that come before the board have a chance to make right an error that they have created, while paying a price to society,” said CAB member Doug Primmer.
The CAB consists of five members: Karen Sherman and Durón, both appointed by the Hermiston School District; Manuel Gutierrez and Primmer, members of the Hermiston City Council; and at-large member Mysty Boyd, appointed jointly by the school district and city council. Erica Sandoval, crime prevention officer with the HPD, is the board’s administrator.
In order to be eligible for the CAB’s diversion program, an offender has to be 18 or under, charged with a misdemeanor or lesser violation, and be a first-time offender. The juvenile and a parent or guardian must also agree to take part in the program.
“I can’t remember anyone choosing not to go through the program,” said Sherman, who, along with Sandoval, has been with the CAB since its inception in 2008.
After an eligible juvenile agrees to be part of the program, they are scheduled to appear in Hermiston Municipal Court in the evening.
“We do it in the evenings so the kids don’t have to miss school and the parents are less likely to miss work,” said Sandoval.
Inside the courtroom, the juvenile faces the members of the CAB board, who sit in the jury box.
“We do this in a courtroom so the kids see what it’s like to be in court,” said Sandoval. “And hopefully that serves as a positive form of intimidation.”
And while the board members have the facts of the case before them, they always ask the offenders to explain what happened and their role in the offense.
“Part of it is to get a sense of how they perceive the situation,” said Sherman. “Are they taking this seriously?”
The board has a variety of sanctions at their disposal, depending upon the severity of the offense and the attitude of the offender. The board has the authority to hand out community service, order the offender to write a letter of apology, undergo counseling, become part of a mentoring program and, in some cases, pay restitution, although board members say that is rarely ordered.
“That tends to punish the family much more than the kid,” Sherman said. “So we prefer community service.” If the juvenile has a paying job, however, monetary restitution is sometimes one of the sanctions.
The juvenile is also put on what is described as “informal probation,” generally no longer than six months. During that time, they are expected to fulfill all the requirements the board hands down and if they do so within the probationary period, the case is closed and their record is clean.
Another remarkable statistic about the Community Accountability Board is that it boasts a 96-percent success rate – meaning that of the 214 cases the board has presided over since 2008, only 4 percent of the juveniles have committed a second offense.
Durón credits that success to an entire community working together to see that each kid is given the opportunity and attention they need to stay on track.
“It’s really that deep collaboration between the school district and the police department and the work Erica is doing to make sure the kids are following through,” Durón said.
“I tell them, ‘Look, this is your one and only opportunity. If you do this again, you’ll go through the juvenile court system,’ ” Sandoval said. It’s a message that almost always gets through, but Sandoval worries about the small handful of kids who don’t get the message.
“I love every one of my kids (in the program),” Sandoval said. “And even though we’ve had that great success rate, I still think about the ones that didn’t succeed in the program.”
The board makes a genuine effort to get through to the kids about the choices they’ve made, as well as the choices they have before them.
“We don’t spend a lot of time beating them up for what they’ve done,” Sherman said. “We talk a lot about their future and what their interests are. If one of them tells us they want to join the military, we tell them that they’ll have a hard time doing that if they don’t make better choices. We do that with each kid.”
Added Primmer, “The common thread that binds us is the desire to help make that change in an otherwise good kid.”
Sherman said the real key to the board’s success is the value the community puts on its young people.
“We care about one kid at a time in this community,” she said.