Teen offenders get a second chance at Bethlehem youth court

Last year saw an uptick in cases

— Unlawful possession of marijuana continues to be the top offense for those going though Bethlehem’s Youth Court system.

On Wednesday, Feb. 26, Youth Court Director Katrina Charland presented the nonprofit group’s end-of-year report for the Bethlehem Town Board. Although marijuana possession continued to be one of the top charges, this year it tied with petty larceny. Both offenses made up 56 percent of all cases heard by youth court last year.

The program works by diverting cases out of the Bethlehem court system for first-time, low-level offenders. Peer volunteers, who sentence the offender to a certain number of community service hours, hear the cases.

“Not only do we give youth in the community a second chance, which is valuable to them to set them back on the right course, but we also serve as a great volunteer (group) for high schoolers in the community,” said Charland.

Charland said the number of cases that went through the program increased this year. A total of 37 cases were heard versus the 23 of last year. With the increase, the organization has started a new, one-year pilot program, which allows direct referrals from the police department for first-time offenders under the age of 15. The age of the average offender is 17.

Charland said the pilot program is working out really well, because it allows for a faster intervention time. She gave the example of a young girl who was caught shoplifting from Stewart’s. The police referred the girl to the youth court, Charland met with the parents the next day, and within two weeks, the girl had her court day.

“Swift intervention is important for these young offenders,” said Charland.

Nearly 95 percent of the cases brought to the youth court made it successfully though the program. Those who don’t, go back through the normal court process. The report also showed male offenders committed the majority of crimes at 76 percent.

In addition, 738.5 hours of community service were sentenced. Charland said the organization works to match kids’ community service work in some way to the offense they committed. Offenders can also be asked to write letters of apology and take educational classes.

Nearly 630 volunteers participated in the program last year as jurors, attorneys or judges. Volunteers also work additional community services hours as part of participating in the program. A total of 1,888 community service hours were done all together at 33 sites in the area.

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