Panel proves to be effective six months after its inception
One of the leading public health problems in America today is underage drinking. Most adolescents take their first drink of alcohol, on average, at the age of 14. At such an immature age, teens tend to exhibit harmful behavior towards themselves and others when they are under the influence, which is one of the reasons that the Town created the Juvenile Hearing Board last summer.
The intention of the board is to keep youthful offenders guilty of minor crimes out of family court, which is less flexible than a hearing board. Since Jamestown does not have a family court, the alternative to the hearing board would be a trip to Newport County Family Court.
The panel addresses adolescents with drinking problems as well as other petty offenses. Gary Cournoyer, chairman of the board, said that since the board heard its first two cases on Aug. 25, the panel has presided over cases that involved alcohol, fireworks, marijuana, hit-and-run accidents, vandalism, and cyberstalking.
“When we started,” Cournoyer said, “we thought we would hear 12 to 14 cases per year. After only six months, we’ve had more.”
Jamestown’s Juvenile Hearing Board – which is the 34th of its kind in Rhode Island – is a five-member panel with two alternates. The board members are either police officers or local teachers who have been appointed by the Town Council. It meets on the fourth Wednesday of each month at the Jamestown Police Station, and the hearings are closed to the public under the executive session rules for municipal committees.
Offenders range from middleschool age to high school seniors. In order to qualify to have their case heard by the panel, the delinquent must be under 18 years old, and not have been charged with an assault or battery, or be under a family court order.
Once a teen has been arrested, as long as he or she admits to the crime, the Juvenile Hearing Board will hear their case. However, the adolescents are first given a choice: family court or the hearing board.
In most circumstances, youths appear before the board along with their parents. Offenders have the right to bring an attorney with them but it is not required. The board will interact with both the juvenile and their parents.
Agnes Filkins, a retired teacher who currently substitutes at North Kingston High School, is one of the board’s alternates. Filkins says the positive results achieved through the panel regarding a teenager’s restitution are “restorative justice.” When the kids first appear in front of the hearing board, they tend to sound as if they think they have done nothing wrong. “We make them do research on their offense and write a 1,000 word essay,” Cournoyer said. According to Cournoyer, once they do the research, the teenagers realize the severity of their actions.
The goal of the hearing board, along with giving underage delinquents the opportunity to stay out of the more-traumatizing family court system, is to inform them of the dangers of the crimes they are arrested for. Many teens do not realize that excessive drinking can lead to alcohol poisoning, or that improper handling of illegal fireworks can cause dismemberment of a body part such as a hand or a finger, or that excessive drug and substance abuse can cause irreversible damage to an adolescent brain.
Offenders are also encouraged to write letters of apology to the victims, as in the case of the cyber-stalking. Once the board approves of an essay, the youth offender may be ordered to perform one month of community service.
Cournoyer noted that the hearing board could benefit the Jamestown community more if additional non-profit agencies would help. To date, there has been a poor response for community service. The recreation center and fire department have offered their assistance, but Cournoyer said that he would like further participation.
The board gives adolescents the opportunity to learn valuable life lessons when they appear before the panel. The teens are given one month to make restitution, and once the case is closed, the board shreds the paperwork, although the police department keeps the records on file.
Technically, the youths have no record. “It’s good to have a group of adults in the community that are there to help the kids,” Filkins said,” not to condemn or punish them.”
The parents and their kids appreciate the opportunity to rectify and correct their youthful mistakes. “The Juvenile Hearing Board was long overdue in Jamestown,” Filkins said.