March 27, 2014

New program looks to reconcile victims and juvenile offenders in Merced

3-26-2014 California:

A new program that brings juvenile offenders and their victims together to reconcile is set to kick off next week, in the hope that it can give young people a fresh start.

A $154,600 grant from the California Endowment will pay for the first two years of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, which works as a mediator between qualified juvenile offenders and their victims.

The idea is to give both parties a chance to “put themselves in the other person’s shoes,” said Ben Weemes, director for the Merced-based program.

That meeting is a large part of how the program can be successful, Weemes said. The two parties come together and the outcome feels like an agreement, he said, as opposed to an order handed down from a judge. “They make an agreement, and they actually get to buy in,” the 25-year-old said.

Weemes said he has been working a few days a week in Merced for the past six months to lay the groundwork needed before he takes his first case Wednesday. He will work as mediator between the offenders and victims.

A similar program in Fresno has been around for about 30 years. It has seen success with relatively low recidivism rates, as well as success getting offenders to complete their community service and repayment obligations, according to program leaders.

In Merced, Weemes said, the juveniles are eligible to be part of the program after their time in court if they are first-time offenders, have committed a felony, agree to the terms in the program and if the victim is willing to participate. Certain serious crimes can exclude an offender from the program.

Weemes said other cities, like Reedley, have started their own programs that imitate the reconciliation program, but the move to Merced is something of a new endeavor.

The funding for the program, which mostly will go toward Weemes’ salary, is funneled through Fresno Pacific University and Building Healthy Communities, a nonprofit that works to improve low-income areas of Merced.

There are a number of benefits for an offender who is willing to join the program, including possibly avoiding time in juvenile hall.

A 2010 study from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that more than 81 percent of juveniles who have gone to juvenile hall are arrested again within three years.

Getting a young person to straighten up early is key. ..Continued.. by Thaddeus Miller

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