WILKES-BARRE – Jessica Jones believed the boy standing before her on the youth aid panel was a good kid.
He was an A student with dreams of becoming a police officer, but a careless mistake threatened to deter those dreams before they could take flight.
The boy had come to school with a multi-tool clipped to his belt. He didn't think of it as a weapon, but the school did, and expelled him under a zero-tolerance policy for bringing weapons to school.
Sent to an alternative learning center following his expulsion, the boy told the panel he only wanted to return to his former school and graduate with his classmates. He has since completed the youth aid panel's intervention program, and through the advocacy of Jones and the rest of his panel was allowed to return to his former class. He is doing well in his classes and works part-time at a local library, Jones said.
The boy is one of nearly 100 juveniles who have successfully completed Luzerne County's youth aid panel program over the past year and a half. The volunteer panels offer juveniles age 10 to 17 arrested for minor offenses the chance to avoid being charged in court while still being held accountable for their actions.
Each juvenile appearing before the panel must complete a restitution program custom-tailored to their case and outlined in a contract they must sign. The juveniles must also keep in regular contact with a panel member assigned as their mentor during the 90-day restitution period. Juveniles who successfully complete the program will have the record of their case expunged.
The system gave the boy in Jones' story a chance to make restitution for his offense while avoiding the permanent damage an arrest record or alternative schooling could have on his future. Jones said it was a second chance he might not have received in the juvenile courts prior to the inception of the youth aid panels.
"He didn't mean to do this, and the consequences shouldn't have been so severe, but I feel like if he didn't come to the youth aid panel he would have slipped through the cracks," she said. "He would have stayed in the ALC and ultimately wouldn't have gotten to his full potential."
County judges and other leaders gathered Saturday to reflect on those success stories, and honor the 85 county residents who have volunteered their time to sit on youth aid panels.
Some of those volunteers said the opportunity to make positive change in the lives of young people has been its own reward.
"Kids are just so much more able to be influenced, so it's good to see adults helping to prevent them from getting involved with something that can really affect their lives," said Stephanie Durk, a panel volunteer and drug-and-alcohol counselor who works with adults in her profession.
"Adults may keep repeating the same mistakes, but they're prepared to deal with the consequences," she said. "Kids don't know what they're getting involved with."
Panel volunteer Shannon Doyne said panel mentors sometimes become the first positive adult mentors in children's lives.
"We believe in the child," Doyne said. "We don't focus on the offense. It's a negligible part of what we talk about on our panels. We don't talk about it on the phone, and I think we really, truly can be that person (who believes in the child). Until there's someone else who believes, and more people that believe, it's the youth aid panels and I'm honored to do it."
Youth aid panel coordinator Bob Stevens said the panels have proven to be successful alternative to adjudication, and have grown as more local law enforcement agencies, school districts and judges have recognized their effectiveness.
"There's no question that it's working," Stevens said. "There are innumerable instances where the young person we see the first night and the person we see at the end of our panel is a completely different person."
Stevens said it's impossible to compare the program's long-term success rate to that of traditional court intervention, but that 85 percent of juveniles entering the program have successfully completed it, slightly above the average of other youth panels across the state of 82 percent.
The number of panels has grown from six to 12 to meet the demand from increased referrals, and the group recently inducted 20 new volunteers to serve on three new panels in the Hazleton area.
Volunteers are interviewed and selected to serve on youth aid panels on an as-needed basis. Panel Coordinator Bob Stevens said the most important qualification for the job is a desire and motivation to help children. Volunteers should also be prepared to serve for at least one year and to complete a training program. To apply, download an application from the district attorney's page at www.luzernecounty.org and mail it to the Luzerne County District Attorney's Office, C/O Bob Stevens, or email Bob Stevens at Bob.Stevens@luzernecounty.org.