Inside the courtroom at the 35th Police District, Officer Barbara Blackford opens the double doors and calls out to the two people waiting in the hallway.
“You can come back in,” she says as she holds the door open.
A teenage boy walks into the courtroom followed by his mother. They seat themselves in two chairs situated in front of a long table. Across the table from them sit four individuals who are taking notes and shifting through stacks of papers. The four, two men and two women, look at the boy and then at one another. They display no emotion.
Officer Blackford takes her seat a few yards from the table and folds her arms patiently. The boy looks across the table and shifts nervously. His mother has a calm demeanor, yet the manner in which she clutches her purse hints at her inward tension. Then, in a moment that will change this boy’s life forever, one of the men leans forward and speaks.
“Young man,” he says, “the panel has decided to offer you a contract.”
The boys face breaks into a huge grin and he eases back from the edge of his chair. His mother issues a heaving sigh.
The man, Elijah Merritt, is the chairperson of the 35th Police District’s Youth Aid Panel (YAP). He and the rest of the panel have just spent the better part of the previous hour meeting with the boy and his mother, and the second part privately deliberating the boy’s immediate future.
“The main objective of the panel is to give first-time offenders a break so that they don’t have a police record,” he explains. “They come before us and the panel makes a decision as to whether we are going to give them a contract or not.”
Officer Blackford has spent her 14 years on the police force at the 35th District. She currently serves as a community relations officer for the district. One part of this job is overseeing the Youth Aid Panel.
“The program is a good way to keep kids out of the system,” she says. “It helps them and their families, plus it cuts the workload for the courts.”
According to the fall 2007 issue of Community Justice Report, the newsletter of the Pennsylvania Council on Community Youth Aid Panels, the YAP’s 864 panelists heard 3,022 cases in 2006.
Chairman Merritt always begins the panel by asking the child the same question: Tell me in your own words how you ended up getting arrested. It is crucial that the child admits that he or she made a mistake. Although there are cases where a child arrives at the panel because of a misunderstanding or honest mistake, he or she is made to understand that life is often filled with mistakes but rarely with second chances.
The contract is a group of items that the panel will request of the child, and he or she has a certain amount of time to complete that contract. Items common to the contract include a book report, an essay on lessons learned from the program’s experiences, a self-description or self-improvement form and a letter of apology either to a person who was affected by the actions or to the child’s parents.
One of the more popular items for children accused of stealing is enrollment in Good Shepherd, a mediation program that teaches juveniles constructive ways to resolve disputes. A child will spend one Saturday completing six hours of counseling and confidence-building exercises. According to Officer Blackford, 90 percent of the kids return from Good Shepherd saying they really enjoyed the experience.
Community service is also a common item on contracts. Community Justice Report accounted that over 31,000 hours of community service were completed statewide from the contract agreements.
The contract that the program offers is a one-shot deal. Should the child break the law again, or if he or she is unsuccessful in fulfilling the contract, then the prior offense is put on the criminal record and the child faces the harsh reality of life as part of the criminal justice system.
The members of the panel also talk extensively with children about the importance of education. One of the panel members, Kathleen Brooks, is a teacher. She pays particular attention to the child’s academic history, attendance and behavioral records.
Other issues that are openly discussed with the child include home life, employment and career goals.
During the time period under the contract, each child is assigned a monitor–one of the four members of the YAP. The child must check in with the monitor once a week for the duration of the contract, and the monitor is available to the child any questions about the items exist about the individual contract.
Evelyn Gary, of Mount Airy, has been on the panel for 19 years. She has found that many of the kids appreciate having someone who is concerned and cares about them. To her, the weekly conversation she has with those she monitors is more than just a requirement.
“I tell them that if they just want to call me about problems, it’s all right,” she says. “Sometimes they just need someone to talk to.”
Gary has been working with children all of her life, and she sees her volunteerism as an opportunity to just do a little bit more.
“I think that there is always hope,” she says. “If you get one out of 10, then you have done something, and in our situation we do get more than one out of 10.”
Gilbert Hendricks has been volunteering for roughly one year. He volunteers because he gets a good feeling from trying to help the kids, and he has seen many kids with problems emerge to fulfill their potential.
“There are some that this program really helps,” says Hendricks. “They see the error of their ways, and then they honor their contract and move on.”