Monday, November, 26, 2012
In Greenville County, South Carolina this month, a 15-year-old Greenville County student and her father met with a juvenile arbitrator to discuss the circumstances in which this “A” student was charged with disorderly conduct when a text message ignited a fight between her and another student at the school. The soft-spoken girl didn’t fit the stereotype of the typical juvenile defender and seemed to be honestly sorry that the entire exchange had happened. "I don't know what happened," she said. "It just something took over me. I was scared and I didn't want to go to jail."
At this particular juvenile court, the 13th Circuit court, Solicitor Walt Wilkins discussed the thousands of juvenile offenders who are charged with offenses based on a moment of indiscretion or lack of foresight. And these qualities are common among teenagers, many of whom don’t understand the legal consequences of their actions until it is too late. That’s why juvenile arbitration is such a good way to deal with these cases.
"Most people that become hardened criminals with long records or commit violent crimes started particularly when they were young," said Wilkins. In order to prevent this from happening to as many teenagers as possible in his district, Wilkins’ office recently began a Juvenile Arbitration program as a way to offer these first-time offender teens a second chance without obtaining a record through the legal system.
Leisa Shea, the program director, states that the juvenile arbitration program is only available as an option to first-time teen offenders and that felony crimes are not dealt with through the program. However, misdemeanors such as shoplifting, vandalism and disorderly conduct are some of the most common charges that are handled through the program, in which teen offenders talk with a juvenile arbitrator and work through ways to ensure the offense doesn’t happen again.
According to Shea, in the first meeting between the arbitrator and the first-time offender, the teen’s parents, a law enforcement representative and the victim are also involved. In this meeting, the teen must explain his or her actions to the group and discuss possible punishments (or “sanctions”) that should be a result of their action. Some of the most common sanctions include community service, an apology letter, or even a book report. According to Wilkins, "Someone who's fighting in school, who's stealing around town doesn't need to go into our system just yet. They need a chance to prove themselves that that's not the path for them."
As a result of the juvenile arbitration procedures, if the teen follows the sanctions and proves that he or she can stay out of trouble for the next year, the criminal offense is expunged from their record. Of the 5,000 juveniles who participated in the juvenile arbitration program last year, only 9% of those participants re-offended within two years of their original offense. This speaks to the success of the program.