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Panel discusses juvenile justice

Marcela Berrios | Wednesday, March 1, 2006

Juvenile delinquents awaiting sentencing need to receive better treatment regardless of the circumstances that led to their crimes, a panel concluded Tuesday night at the Robinson Community Learning Center.

A group of Notre Dame and Saint Mary’s students and faculty and Michiana residents gathered Tuesday night to listen to a collection of South Bend juvenile justice experts.

Speakers at the event included Magistrate Harold Brueseke, Magistrate for the St. Joseph’s County Probate Court; Dr. Jeff Burnett, Director of the Residential Treatment program at the Juvenile Justice Center; Mark Geissler, a social worker with the South Bend Community School Corporation; Peter Morgan, Coordinator of the Youth Justice Program at the Robinson Community Center and Kenneth Cotter, Chief Deputy Prosecutor.

Notre Dame’s Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) sponsored the event in an effort to generate constructive dialogue regarding the virtues and shortcomings of South Bend’s juvenile justice system.

The panelists and their listeners assessed the effectiveness of the outreach programs in high schools and the conditions individuals face in the detention and correction centers. The group also discussed the involvement of parents in the rehabilitation process.

Morgan explained the concept of restorative justice, a principle that drives the entire juvenile justice system.

“We think of the delinquent acts of these children not in terms of broken laws, but rather in terms of broken relationships,” he said. “We sit with the young person in trouble and with those who are directly affected by his [or] her behavior and we help develop a plan to repair those relationships and any consequences that may have arisen – avoiding prosecution if possible.”

In fact, when a teenager is found delinquent, the court determines which course of action will contribute most to the youth’s rehabilitation.

Some of the options and programs that can await an adjudicated delinquent are family counseling, residential treatment programs, substance abuse treatment, community service and – for more serious offenders – penalties such as fines and prison time.

Most of the teenagers in detention centers and correction facilities are not there serving a court sentence, but rather awaiting trial or sentencing hearings.

“Sometimes the child is so unruly he may pose a threat to the community, or he may be considered likely to flee before his trial begins, and since there are no bails allowed in the juvenile justice system, temporary detainment may be the only available course of action,” Burnett said.

That’s a large problem within the system, panelists said. Prosecuted delinquents and teenagers awaiting trial are placed in the same facilities and receive the same treatment as prisoners.

Notre Dame freshman Martha Calcutt, a mathematics tutor at the South Bend Juvenile Correction Facility, expressed her concern regarding the treatment the detainees sometimes receive at the hands of their wardens.

“Some of the boys I work with in the correction center tell me all about the snide comments the guards make, and how they even get away with beating some of the boys,” Calcutt said. “I really do question how much the authorities and the people in charge of these programs monitor the rehabilitation of the boys, or care about the direction their lives will take after they are released.”

Other volunteers pointed out the unsatisfactory educational programs in the detention centers. Seventh and 10th graders are given the same mathematics assignments, and there is a shortage of teachers to help the children, they said.

Brueseke spoke about programs implemented within the detention centers to help teenagers obtain GED certification, as well as the possibility of establishing technical vocation programs. Such programs help offenders integrate into the workforce.

Brueseke said high schools are making improvements in the outreach programs by testing children for emotional and psychological disorders. Sixty percent of teenagers who get in trouble with the juvenile justice system are either affected by these conditions or have substance abuse problems, he said.

However, Brueseke and other panelists said these programs are still in the early development stages.

In the meantime, panelists said, the juvenile justice system is still struggling to strike a balance between protecting the community from offenders and determining a course of action that will rehabilitate and re-integrate the offender into society.

Every case is different and every child has a different story to tell. Some come from homes with supportive parents who failed to discipline an unruly child, while others come from dysfunctional families with problems of domestic violence and alcoholism.

Either way, the counselors, attorneys, social workers and volunteers at the Robinson Center Tuesday night were focused on the rehabilitation of these troubled youths regardless of the circumstances.

“I really enjoy working with children and teenagers, so I would really like to help these kids get their lives back together, and make an honest living,” CDF member and Notre Dame freshman Rachel Wiehoff said. “Some of them really do have the potential to become contributing members of society.”

Many of these juveniles actively work to achieve that goal. One drawing by an unknown child at the Robinson Center conveys a message that suggests potential for reform.

“I will be nice,” the poster reads. “I will be loud outside, not inside.”

The panelists urged the community to become involved and help these children by becoming Big Brothers and Sisters, tutors or mentors. Such actions, they said, will help juveniles overcome their problems and frustrations in healthy ways – and stay away from delinquency.