New program offers young offenders chance for change

·3 min read
A new restorative justice program launched Friday in Ventura County would allow some low-level young offenders to avoid juvenile court.
A new restorative justice program launched Friday in Ventura County would allow some low-level young offenders to avoid juvenile court.

Editor's note; A previous version of this story gave a different figure for the program. The story has been updated to reflect the specific contract cost.

A new program launched Friday in Ventura County aims to steer some young offenders from juvenile court toward a better future.

The program, Transforming Harm to Healing, partners the Ventura County District Attorney's Office and the Ventura County Probation Agency with a local nonprofit, Interface Children & Family Services.

The so-called "restorative justice" program will bring together nonviolent offenders with victims, family and support staff in a safe environment. The process gives the victim a voice and provides young offenders a way to accept responsibility and make amends for wrongdoing.

"I love this program," said Senior Deputy DA Maureen Byrne, who supervises juvenile prosecutions. "I'm really excited about it."

The DA's office and probation agency will review criminal cases involving offenders age 12 to 21 for possible diversion into the program, Byrne said.

A youth who shoplifts, for example, could take part in conferences facilitated by Interface staff that involve the store owner and the youth's family or guardians.

The victim, sitting across the table from the youth, can explain the harm caused by the crime, Byrne said. Together, they can devise a plan to heal that harm, including having the youth pay restitution.

Interface staff would first talk to the youth and his or her parents to make sure they're willing to go through the program. They would also explain the process to the victim to see if they'd like to participate and ensure there's a safe space for the parties to conference.

A participant would likely spend about six months in the program, Byrne said. Interface staff will try to address underlying trauma or causes that drove the criminal behavior, including alcohol or drug use, to help the young person overcome those challenges.

The goal is to prevent recidivism among participants, she said. Program coordinators expect about 60 cases to be referred during the fiscal year that started Friday.

The program is funded by the state dollars that come to the county annually through the Juvenile Justice Crime Prevention Act, said Mark Varela, Ventura County's chief probation officer.

A juvenile justice commission recommended Interface get the $144,000 contract for the current fiscal year. The funds do not need approval from the Ventura County Board of Supervisors because they are below the required threshold, according to the district attorney's office.

Varela said restorative justice programs provided an evidence-based approach that can help young offenders embark on a "path of success."

Nicholle Gonzalez-Seitz, regional programs officer for Interface, which provides social services to county residents, said in a statement restorative justice gives victims a voice.

"It puts them at the center of the process and provides them with an opportunity to safely express their feelings and emotions, which can be empowering and offer

closure," she said.

For offenders, "it is also an important step toward accepting accountability and recovery for those who have caused harm.”

District Attorney Erik Nasarenko said in a statement the program brings justice for the victim while holding the minor accountable.

"Restorative justice provides rehabilitation but also serves as a deterrent," he said. "It is an opportunity for our youth to find a new path with a focus on education and hope for a brighter future.”

This article originally appeared on Ventura County Star: Restorative justice program launches for Ventura County young offenders