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Civic board's lesson is justice

An accountability board works with first time juvenile offenders to show them the consequences of their crimes.

By JACKIE RIPLEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published April 28, 2002


TOWN 'N COUNTRY -- The two girls spent the day at the mall spending money and having fun. But then they spotted a table of bras and gave into temptation. Before the afternoon was over the bras were in their purses and the girls were in the Hillsborough County Juvenile Assessment Center.

It was a theft that took only a few seconds. But the girls, 12 and 13, are still dealing with the consequences.

"Every child is open to making a mistake," said Lucy Carroll, a member of the Town 'N Country Neighborhood Accountability Board, where the girls eventually ended up. "That's what life is about, making mistakes and learning from them."

That's the lesson Carroll and her husband Jim aim to teach as part of an 8-member, volunteer board. Their goal is to help first-time youthful offenders learn from their mistakes, first by facing what they've done and then by making amends.

"We're hoping we're setting them in the right direction," said Lucy Carroll, who lives in Town 'N Country.

The pilot program, established last year by the University of Minnesota, provides money to selected states to set up neighborhood accountability boards. These boards provide a non-judicial process for first time, non-violent youthful offenders.

Hillsborough, the first of Florida's counties to get the program up and running, also has neighborhood boards in West Tampa and Palm River. Each is independent of the other.

The Town 'N Country neighborhood accountability board handles cases in the 33615 zip code.

"There was an interest from residents and volunteers associated with Crime Watch and juvenile crime and how to get a handle on it," said Valerie Tank, a case manager for the county's juvenile diversion program.

To date, there have been 53 hearings with five failures, situations in which the youth failed to carry out what had been promised, Tank said.

After arrest, the youth, as with any other juvenile offender, is taken to the Juvenile Assessment Center, a non-profit agency affiliated with the Agency for Treatment Services, Inc.

There, officials decide if the case is one that can be handled by a neighborhood accountability board. If so, the child is sent home with the parents.

The next stop is the accountability board, which in Town 'N Country, meets one Saturday a month at the sheriff's community station on Wilsky Boulevard.

"We discuss what they've done and how it impacts other people," said Jim Carroll. Over a 30-day period the youth completes a number of tasks, including making amends to family and neighbors and performing 30 days of community service.

Sometimes drug screening or psychological counseling is part of the program.

Victims are asked to attend the hearing so they can describe how the crime has affected their lives.

"We read the police report and then ask them to tell us what happened, and what made them decide to do what they did," Lucy Carroll said. "Some just spill their guts, others you have to drag it out of. Each case is unique."

The teens go back before the board one month after their first appearance.

In the case of the two teenage girls, "one wrote a really nice letter saying she didn't realize that one little slip could affect so many people," Lucy Carroll said. "We try to make them understand that everything has consequences."

-- Jackie Ripley can be reached at (813) 269-5308 or ripley@sptimes.com.

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