2010-08-05 / News

New Juvenile Board convenes this month

By Phil Zahodiakin

Jamestown will inaugurate its newly established Juvenile Hearing Board with a pair of cases that the panel will tackle on Aug. 25.

The Board, which held the last of its preliminary meetings on July 29, is intended to keep youthful offenders guilty of “minor” transgressions out of Family Court, which is less flexible and more traumatic than a hearing board.

Cases will be limited to Jamestown incidents – but not Jamestown residents – and they will be referred to the board by the local police department, the state police and the Dept. of Environmental Management.

With the addition of Jamestown, there are now 34 juvenile hearing boards in Rhode Island. The state General Assembly granted Jamestown the authority to establish a board under 2009 legislation authored by Rep. Deb Ruggiero (D).

The five-member board and its two alternates were appointed by the Jamestown Town Council on June 1 of this year.

Board Chairman Gary Cournoyer told the Press that juvenile boards help ensure that youthful offenders have an opportunity to atone for their missteps in a way that engages communities, as well as victims.

“If you can intervene at a point when kids are re-directable,” Cournoyer said, “they can learn from their mistakes and get on with their lives. [Juvenile boards] are a really important way to reduce recidivism and help the kids avoid a higher level of the juvenile justice system. We have the power to issue sanctions that are going to involve the town, which means the town ‘owns’ what’s happening with [its youthful offenders].”

The Board will hold its hearings at 6:30 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of each month. The hearings, which will be held at the Jamestown police station, will be closed to the public under the executive session rules for municipal committees.

Most of the procedures established for the Jamestown Board were derived from the Johnston/ Smithfield Board, but the panel will be flexible in its approach to each case – and some of the procedures will evolve over time.

In general, however, offenders would be referred to the Jamestown Juvenile Board if they are under the age of 18; they have not been charged with assault or battery; they have not appeared before the Board twice before or failed to abide by penalty and restitution recommendations after appearing once before; and they are not already under the control of a Family Court system.

Jamestown does not have a Family Court, so its youthful offenders were previously referred to Newport County Family Court.

In general, the offenses qualifying for referral to the Juvenile Board are those which – if committed by an adult – would be misdemeanors. Examples include drug use, drinking alcohol in public, truancy, traffic violations and vandalism.

The Press asked Jamestown Police Chief Thomas Tighe if his department would be kept “in the loop” if DEM or the state police planned to refer an offender to the Board. Tighe replied that the department would be informed of a pending referral from another agency – and that the other agencies may ask the department to make the referral itself.

Because the Juvenile Board will not operate under sentencing guidelines, the panel will have the flexibility to adapt the available penalties to the charges. The various penalties include curfews, counseling, fines (up to $100), written apologies, restrictions on associations with other offenders, drug and alcohol testing, driving restrictions, community service and restitution.

During the Board meeting, several members expressed a concern that restitution alone wouldn’t mean much if parents or guardians simply wrote a checks to victims. Consequently, the Board will look at options for youthful offenders to “work off” the dollar amount of their damages, if any.

Restitution may be ordered in addition to community service, which is typically performed for non-profit groups. Although the Board members have some concerns about allowing offenders to perform their community service at businesses or other for-profit establishments, Cournoyer told the Press that he would not necessarily rule them out.

“I don’t use the word ‘never’ very often,” he said, “so, if someone approached us and said, ‘If you have [offenders] who have done this or that, this is what we could do with them, and it would probably be a good experience,’ the Board would explore the idea.”

All of the five Board members, along with the two alternates, must be Jamestown residents. Cournoyer, who is a licensed independent clinical social worker, worked for the state Dept. of Children, Youth and Families for 29 years – which includes his 20 years of service at the R.I. Training School.

Two of the seven individuals selected by the Town Council are police officers; all seven have experience interacting with children.

“It’s a very good mix of people,” he said.

Besides Cournoyer, the other Board members are vice chairperson Susan Pratt, Bill Piva, Mark Mattoes and Susan Earley. The alternates are Agnes Cotter Filkins and Andrew Ford.

Before the Board members can hear a case, the offender will have to sign some paperwork: First, he or she must sign a statement admitting their guilt; second, they must waive their right to a Family Court hearing; and third, they must sign a statement agreeing to abide by all the decisions and penalties issued by the Board.

The Board will be flexible in its approach to each 30-minute hearing.

“We didn’t want to set the process in stone,” Cournoyer said, “but, the youth would be seated with his or her parents [or guardians] sitting behind. We would interview the youth, first, and depending on how that goes, we would determine if we wanted to interview the youth further, without the parents present – or whether we wanted to interview the parents without the youth present.”

Because the Board members will have an opportunity to review the case records in advance of the hearing, there won’t be any need for the arresting officer to be present – unless, of course, the Board decides otherwise.

During the meeting, it was stated that lawyers wouldn’t be present, but here, again, Cournoyer declined to say “never.”

“Lawyers could be present,” he said. “In talking to other juvenile boards and reviewing their charters, we learned that it very rarely happens. Parents could bring a lawyer if it puts them at ease, but this is a communitybased system for restitution and sanctions. The victim is satisfied, the community is satisfied and the kids understand that they’ve been held accountable. So, we wouldn’t exclude lawyers, but we will operate as an open forum in which court procedures and rules of evidence won’t apply.”

Similarly, parental requests to address the Board won’t necessarily be denied.

But, “If it’s clear that a kid is admitting his or her guilt, and they’re throwing themselves on the mercy of the Board, we may decide that we don’t need to hear from the parents. Again, it’ll be a case-by-case decision,” he said.

Once the Board hands down penalty and restitution decisions, the offender will have 30 days in which to fulfill his or her obligations. The Board will review the performance of the offender at the end of the 30 days; if the offender has completed his or her obligations successfully, the Board will destroy its records of the case.

The Police Department will not immediately destroy the case files, however, because the Board would want to have them available in the event that the offender is brought back for a hearing at some point down the road.

Non-profit and for-profit establishments wishing to discuss the possibility of offering a venue for community service should contact Pratt at 560-0358 or Cournoyer at 842-1158.

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