By Derrick Knutson
Maybe little Johnny spray-painted lewd pictures on the city water tower. Maybe he’s routinely ignored town curfew and been caught by police on multiple occasions. Or maybe he’s had a hit or two of reefer.
Those are all offenses a youngster could do a stint in a juvenile detention facility or be fined by the court system for, but there is an alternative to jail or fines for young offenders in Chisago County and surrounding areas.
That alternative is the diversion program offered by the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau in Forest Lake.
The diversion program offers classes, restorative justice and community service programs to get non-violent kids on the right track and keep them out of jail.
Aaron Lynch, community justice case manager at the Bureau, said the organization serves Chisago and Washington counties, and it takes referrals from Anoka County.
He noted youths who complete the diversion program have a 50-percent reduced rate of recidivism.
“The goal of the program is to keep those petty offenders out of the court system,” he said. “With intervention, they learn from their mistakes. That’s good because it cuts the (re-offense) rate almost in half, which saves the government time and money and it helps educate the youth.”
Lynch said many offenders are referred to the program by the court system, and some end up going through the program after being referred by a parent or guardian.
Lynch explained the program is broken down into three phases.
The first step involves an educational component.
Juveniles who take part in the program can go through an array of classes, including a chemical awareness course, drug use and paraphernalia classes; a tobacco program and a truth-and-consequences class.
Lynch said the class component is divided into two age groups – 15 and under and 15 and above – so the material presented is comprehended by those in the program.
Lynch noted the program is not available for offenders ages 18 and above.
The next step of the diversion program involves restorative justice.
“(The offenders) restore damage to the community,” Lynch said. “That can look like a lot of things: reuniting with victims of their crimes, apologies, restitution …”
The third and final phase is the community service component, where youths volunteer their time for the betterment of various communities.
“Some families view it as the punishment piece, but it’s very restorative,” Lynch said. “What better way to bring equilibrium back to the community than have them come out and serve the community?”
Lynch added community service can be just about anything, as long as it’s done for or with a non-profit entity.
“We have clients work with the Forest Lake Lions Club, volunteer at high schools, shovel out fire hydrants with fire departments during the winter, go volunteer at Wild River State Park and clear trails, work at the Humane Society washing dogs or taking them out for walks …,” he said.
Diversion only program offered
Chisago County Attorney Janet Reiter said the diversion program is really the only alternative to fines or jail time for youth offenders in Chisago County.
Until about seven months ago, Chisago County offered a “Juvenile Substance Abuse Court” to youth who were involved in non-violent drug-related offenses, but that program was nixed due to a lack of participants, District Judge Robert Rancourt said.
For those who would like to learn more or get involved with the Lakes Area Youth Service Bureau diversion program, call (651) 464-3685 or visit web.ysblakesarea.org.