Would You Rather Go to Court or Eat Dinner?

It's Just Dinner
Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston hopes a new program will keep first-time juvenile offenders from repreating their mistakes.

It’s just dinner – no biggie. The idea is simple, but the ramifications could be huge.

A local partnership is adding another tool to the Community Accountability Board designed to keep young, first-time offenders from getting caught up in the criminal justice system – It’s Just Dinner.

The idea is for a mentor to have dinner with an at-risk juvenile and his or her parents to help resolve problems that may be causing the juvenile to get into trouble. The mentor can point out available resources as well as get the parents and their child to talk about issues that may be troubling the youth. The parents and child are left with a message: This is your one chance to clean up your act. Play your cards right and you’ll have a clean record. Mess up again and you’ll end up in court facing a judge.

Hermiston Police Chief Jason Edmiston got the idea from a similar program in Portland – It’s Just Lunch. That program is geared toward African American men 18 and older and it has had great success in decreasing the crime rate among that demographic in Portland.

Edmiston thought a similar program would work in Hermiston, but he wanted to target a younger demographic.

“I felt if we waited until the kid is 18, we’ve missed the ball,” Edmiston said. The It’s Just Dinner program will be funded by $10,000 contributions each from the Hermiston Police Department, the Hermiston Fire Department and the Hermiston School District. The money will fund a services coordinator position to be filled by Terry Cummings, the HPD chaplain who recently retired as pastor of the Hermiston Church of the Nazarene.

Cummings will oversee the recruitment of volunteers to serve as mentors. The mentor will then provide a free dinner to a juvenile and his or her parents with the hope that it will serve as a wake-up call to the family. It will be yet another tool available to the Community Accountability Board or CAB. 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 CAB consists of five members: Karen Sherman and Maria Durón, both appointed by the Hermiston School District; Manuel Gutierrez and Doug 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 younger, 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. 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.

And starting in January, it can add the It’s Just Dinner program to its arsenal. Statistics from the Hermiston Police Department show the CAB is having an impact on juvenile crime. According to the HPD, 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).

Edmiston said juveniles who have taken part in the CAB have appreciated the efforts made to get them back on the right track.

“To this day, Erica (Sandoval) has kids she worked with back in 2008 come up to her and thank her for helping them,” Edmiston said.