Petaluma police and nonprofit leaders are collaborating on a program aimed at turning local youth’s mistakes into positive life-changing lessons.
Beginning in March, the restorative justice program will connect juveniles who have committed minor offenses in the city of Petaluma with social services through local nonprofit Mentor Me, and enroll them in a months-long plan where they will interface with the victims impacted by their crimes.
The Petaluma Police Department currently uses a “reprimand and release” model, where youth who are apprehended for certain low-level crimes are warned and released to a parent or guardian. Case files are held at the police department for a year, but will not be sent to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s Office for prosecution, according to Zilverio “Zeus” Rivera, a Homeless Outreach Services Team officer. Police have the discretion to take the previous offense into consideration if the same juvenile re-offends, said Rivera, who is also a member of Mentor Me’s advocacy team that works with juvenile offenders or teens who are dropping out of school.
“What the juvenile is telling us at that moment is, ‘Hey I’m dabbling in some areas that I shouldn’t right now, something is going wrong,’” said Deborah Dalton, the executive director of Mentor Me, a nearly 20-year-old nonprofit that pairs kids with adult mentors. “This is a really big red flag warning that they need some more adult intervention and supervision or help. When we don’t do anything after that reprimand and release, we’ve missed that opportunity. When we do wait, we typically see them again.”
Under the new model, rather than just a warning, those juvenile offenders will be immediately put in contact with Mentor Me’s advocacy team for weekly case management and check-ins and will have the opportunity to participate in a one-on-one mentorship. Those kids will be part of a circle of community members, which will likely include their parents and the victim of the crime.
For example, if a teen is caught spray-painting on a local business, the offender could be asked to complete a research project about paint removal practices and then will undertake the cleanup work with supervision from the business owners, Dalton said.
“The hope is that what started as a negative relationship with someone whose property you damaged may turn into a relationship where now you’re sort of talking and learning about each other’s lives and hopefully building a rapport,” she said. “Who knows, maybe that kid will end up getting a job there — we’re talking about skill building at the same time.”
Team members will work together to design a program to boost the child’s success, and they’ll be responsible for completing it within a predetermined time frame, though Dalton hopes teens will remain involved through age 21. If the offender doesn’t fulfill the requirements, the case could be sent to the Sonoma County District Attorney’s office, Dalton said.
“It’s our goal to keep kids close to home — we have got to keep them out of prisons and institutions … the more deeply we can help kids be connected to the community at large, the better,” she said. “So this is an attempt for families to see law enforcement as a way to help them catch the early signs of delinquency and route them to positive organizations and positive social activities and deeper relationships with adults who are not family members.”