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Idaho Judge Administers 'Community Justice' - 2002-04-22


Criminals, once released, often end up back in jail. But a rural judge in the western American state of Idaho has spent the past five years dealing differently with people who commit crimes. She calls her approach "community justice."

Bill London, conservation officer with Idaho Fish and Game, takes shelter from a quiet spring rain at the Old Mill Pond just north of Horseshoe Bend. He grins as he watches a youngster catch a fish. Mr. London didn't see that back when the pond was home to what he calls drinkers, poachers and dopers. "Right there," he said, "I caught a methamphetamine dealer and he was fishing illegally and then I smelled marijuana, then I found the methamphetamine and that is the kind of problems we were getting."

People using illegal drugs felt comfortable here, said Mr. London, because the Old Mill Pond was run down.

Fernando grew up in Horseshoe Bend and remembers what it was like. "It used to be really scummy," he said. "It used to smell bad and there used to be a bunch of algae in it. The road used to be really, really bad and people used to not like coming down here because of the road, but now it's really, really nice."

Fernando is helping make the Mill Pond nice. He's raking up weeds as part of his sentence for getting caught smoking marijuana. He has to do 100 hours of community service. He says it's better than going to jail. He said, "I've seen a lot of people go to jail and when they come out they just keep going back - like my buddy Dave, he's from here. He's a product of the system. He keeps getting in trouble, he's never gonna be straight, he keeps going back to jail, nothing any good comes of it."

That's the case not only in Idaho but also in many rural towns across America. Boise County Judge Patricia Young is trying to prevent that from happening by using approaches already tried in some big city programs. "All the studies show that in 90 percent of the cases, if you can keep the youth in the community, keep building those relationships, find meaningful adults in that youth's life, that's what that youth needs," she said.

That's the community justice approach that Judge Young takes. She tries to make the victims and the town whole again by requiring that offenders be accountable for what they did. Offenders apologize to the victims, then do community servicelike raking weeds at Horseshoe Bend's Mill Pond.

Judge Young also helps juveniles get needed skills, such as a high school degree, so they can go on to lead productive lives. She's not afraid to put people in jail if they're dangerous. But most of the cases she sees in this 810 hectare rural county with only three small towns, are non-violent. Seventeen-year-old RJ got caught drinking beer, a violation of age requirements for drinking alcoholic beverages.

As part of his community service sentence he pulls weeds at the Mill Pond. He said, "You have to pay $3 an hour to do it, have to pay to work for nothing."

RJ may not like it, but the money pays insurance fees for workers like him and the salary of Community Service Director Linda Zimmer, who last year oversaw 11,000 hours of service. Juvenile and adult offenders picked up litter, cleaned the cemetery, fixed roofs, stacked firewood and raked leaves for senior citizens. They painted town benches, worked at the fire department and library and cleaned the museum.

Linda Zimmer said the key to getting things done is to match people's skills with projects. "With the adults," she said, "I try to find out what their profession is and where we can use their talents. If they've got equipment, sometimes we trade hours for the use of their equipment."

Judge Young says the community justice approach is cheaper than jail. It costs $135 a day and up to $60,000 a year to keep kids in detention in Idaho. But with the community service program, Boise County spends less than $5,000 a year for detention.

Such savings helped convince Teresa Gardunia of the value of community justice. She's been Boise County Prosecutor the past five years. "I thought that when I first came here that jail time was a good option until I started seeing some of the results of the community service and the low recidivism rates that we have in this county."

Public Defender Rob Chestain is a fan of community justice too. "It gives me a viable option to suggest to my clients that rather than take a case to trial and fight it out in front of a jury that if they are to accept the community justice option, it gives them a viable option to get their life back," he said.

Judge Young has her detractors, however. "Now," she said, "there are certainly people that think I'm not tough enough, that I should throw them all in the slammer and throw away the key."

Boise County Deputy Sheriff Steve Bowers is one of those who has concerns about Judge Young's approach. "The law enforcement side doesn't really think the judge does much to punish anybody for any type of crime," he said.

But Judge Young said after following the traditional judicial approach for more than a decade, she grew tired of seeing the same offenders return to court. With community justice, that doesn't happen as often.

But she said some youngsters don't respond to community justice - and she blames that on their early upbringing. "They never really got that basic good nurturing that they needed for their brain to develop to have the capacity to understand the difference between right and wrong and making wise choices," she said.

So Judge Young decided to focus on early prevention. She helped find funding for pre-schools in the county's three towns and home visits to new moms. Today, county advisor Debbie Alquire visits the rural home of a mom who participates in another program called Parents as Teachers.

Ms. Alquire teaches motor skills to pre-schooler Matthew and gives skill sheets to his mom so she can continue the lessons throughout the month.

It's too soon to tell how effective such early prevention will be, but Boise County Commissioner Dale Hanson doesn't approve. Mr. Hanson said, "I believe we have too much government interference in the lives of private citizens."

But Judge Patricia Young, with increasing support from townspeople, insists that the combination of early prevention, community service and caring about offenders, is the best solution for those who commit crimes in Boise County.

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