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For Petaluma youth, get out of jail card is not free

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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.”

The two-year program is funded by a $60,000 grant administered by the Board of State and Community Corrections. The police department has not used such a model for the past 12 years, when the department had an agreement with Petaluma People Services Center to facilitate a similar program before funding ran out, PPSC’s Executive Director Elece Hempel said.

Rivera said the reprimand and release model is not commonly used by officers, since it lacks accountability. Last year, 98 juveniles were arrested, while 22 were reprimanded and released, according to data from the department. Since 2013, 787 minors have been arrested in the city, while only 150 were reprimanded and released.

“This has the potential to have a whole myriad of positive impacts — some of the cases that were going to the DA’s office because we lacked another option that has some accountability,” said Rivera, a gang expert who spent years working in Sonoma County adult and juvenile institutions. “Now, those cases might not go to the DA’s office, and we’re saving money on that end and also we’re not going to put backpacks on these kids with criminal cases. Once these kids get walked through the revolving door of the criminal justice system, I hate to say it, but it’s tough route to find a way out.”

Restorative justice methods have also been used in the Petaluma City Schools District for about a decade, Assistant Superintendent of Student Services Dave Rose said.

“We meet with them and invite the family to that meeting and we talk about the impact the behavior has on students, on the family and on the campus as a whole and how those things relate to the decisions many young people make without being aware of all the potential consequences,” he said.

David Koch, Sonoma County’s chief probation officer, said similar practices are successfully employed in other law enforcement departments through the county, including Sonoma, Sebastopol and Rohnert Park, and are used for some offenders during probation.

“It’s the accountability — it’s meeting who you harmed face-to-face and understanding their emotions and sentiment and how they’re feeling about it,” he said.