Friday, April 10, 2015

Bucks' unique program gives first-time adult offenders a second chance

Posted: Monday, April 6, 2015
Editor’s note: Calkins Media was granted access to a recent Community Accountability Program hearing on the condition that participant names and other identifying details were not disclosed.

This Bucks County courtroom had no lawyers, but there were five “judges,” including a general contractor, a marketing expert and a college student.
They sat behind a foldout table in a meeting room where Warwick officials normally conduct township business. But twice a month the room is turned into a people’s court, where justice is served to those accused of minor crimes that could cause major damage to their careers, futures and lives.
On a recent Thursday evening, panelists heard from a man accused of shoplifting fried chicken as well as a 30-something and a high school senior, both accused of marijuana possession.
The accused men were picked to take part in a unique adult pre-trial intervention program — the only one in Pennsylvania — that gives first-time, nonviolent offenders a second chance to make amends without entering the formal criminal justice system.
The Bucks County Community Accountability Program, or CAP, quietly rolled out in 2013 in Upper Bucks as an alternative to the more formal Accelerated Rehabilitative Disposition, a probation program for first-time nonviolent offenders that also can end with the expungement of criminal records. Since then, five Central Bucks panels started hearing cases six months ago, and the four newly trained Lower Bucks CAP panels received their first referrals in March.
While the program is relatively new, available statistics from the Upper Bucks panel, which meets twice a month, are encouraging, said Bucks County Assistant District Attorney Monica Furber, who oversees the program. Among 112 individuals who applied for CAP, 85 successfully completed it. The remaining individuals were either rejected or failed to complete the program.
CAP is less expensive for offenders and offers a shorter probation time than ARD. Local police refer potential cases to the District Attorney’s Office, which screens and approves applicants, Bucks County Chief of Prosecution Matt Weintraub said. Individuals charged with certain low-level summary or misdemeanors are eligible, but not those arrested on DUI or suspected heavy drug users.
Bucks County Judge Rea Boylan came up with the idea, which is modeled after Youth Aid Panels that use community volunteers to review cases and recommend appropriate consequences outside the juvenile legal system.
“It’s a great idea. People deserve a second chance,” said Bensalem Sgt. Keith Kristy, the police liaison for the four Lower Bucks CAP panels. “If somebody makes a mistake, it shouldn’t haunt them the rest of their lives.”
CLEAN SLATE
Before starting each hearing, Susan McManus, chairwoman of the Central Bucks Panel D, reads an opening statement explaining how CAP works.
The members will ask questions not only about the crime (participants admit to the crime as a condition of admission into CAP), but a person’s home, work and school life. They’ll ask about the person’s friends, habits, hobbies, interests. Afterward, the panel meets privately to decide the consequences, which can include writing letters, restitution and community service.
Participant answers are kept confidential, as long as the person does not express intention for self-harm or harming others. Even the probable cause affidavits that outline the arrest details are collected and returned to police at the end of each panel meeting to protect participants’ privacy.
“This is your chance to wipe your slate clean,” McManus explained to the 24-year-old who stole about $20 worth of fried chicken and a drink on two separate supermarket trips.
Panel members already know a little bit about the man from the police officer who recommended him for CAP. The officer said the man immediately admitted to stealing when he was confronted. While the crime may sound petty, the officer wants the person to stop before it gets worse.
Panel: Why did you take the food?
“I honestly don’t know,” the man said.
Panel: Did you know it was wrong?
“I wasn’t really thinking much when it happened,” he answered.
The man said he lives with his parents and works for a family business. He likes his job. He’s also studying design in college. For fun he mostly hangs out with his friends, and occasionally goes to a bar.
Panel: Do your friends know about your arrest?
He told them he was charged with a traffic violation. He was too ashamed to tell them the truth.
How do you feel about what you did, asked Bill Clark, who works in title insurance.
“I felt bad, nauseous, embarrassed, very embarrassed,” he said, before adding he has self-esteem problems.
“I bet you’ve got a good heart,” Clark said. “Feel good about yourself.”
Following deliberations, the panel decided that he has to write a letter of apology to the supermarket manager, a thank-you letter to the officer who recommended him for CAP and reimburse the supermarket.
Like everyone who appears before CAP, the man must remain drug and alcohol free while still in CAP.
He has 60 days in the program — the typical length is 30 to 90 days. He will work with a panel member who is assigned as a de facto probation officer. The member is responsible for ensuring the completion of the contract the man signed outlining his required tasks.
If the tasks are completed, the criminal case is immediately expunged. If not, it is kicked back into the formal criminal legal system.
BEYOND PUNISHMENT
Retail thefts such as the teen’s are among the most common cases heard by CAP panels, according police and CAP panel members. Both the upper and central Bucks panels average four to six referrals a month, police said.
“These are not career criminals but a lot of times there is a stressor going on in their lives,” said Lisa Gaier, a Quakertown lawyer who chairs one of the two Upper Bucks CAP panels. “These offenders are not the classic criminals. That is why the program works.”
Like the 46-year-old woman who shoplifted a package of hot dogs to feed her children, Gaier said. The woman had never been arrested before, but she was desperate. She didn’t know about local food banks or soup kitchens. She was too embarrassed to ask for help.
As part of her consequences, the panel helped her access social services, Gaier said. Today, the woman volunteers at a local food bank.
Another recent case involved a young woman who became suicidal after her arrest, Gaier said. Panel members were able to immediately connect her with crisis intervention.
One way to look at the idea behind CAP is that it takes a community to rehabilitate a first-time offender, said Weintraub, from the DA’s office.
“If you have a minor offender, it would be good to have members of the community oversee that person’s rehabilitation,” he said. “If community is involved, there is more of an incentive to stay out of trouble.”
While the main purpose of CAP is preventing recidivism, the ability to also help individuals access resources such as support groups or social services, is a bonus, Weintraub said.
“If along the way we can help these people isn’t that a wonderful thing,” he said.
HERE WE ARE
The second and third cases before Panel D that night involved the individuals caught smoking marijuana.
The first man, in his 30s, was a professional cook caught by a cop.
“I know it’s wrong,” he told the panel. “And here we are. It is what it is.”
Once panel members started asking questions, they learned the man recently lost several close family members. He claimed that he started smoking marijuana again to relieve his grief, he said. His roommates are always on his case about smoking it in the house.
Panel members asked if he thought about the repercussions of smoking marijuana.
Not until he was arrested, the man answered. That’s when he realized that he could lose not only his recent promotion at work, but his job and career.
“Is it worth throwing that away?” Clark asked. “Looks like you realize that.”
The case is a tough one, McManus told the group during their deliberations. The man appeared smart, remorseful and spoke about his high standards in his work. Fashioning his penalty presented a challenge since it appeared this was a one-time judgment error.
“Why should a kid like this have a record?” Clark said.
Panel members expressed similar sentiments during deliberations for the third offender, an 18-year-old high school senior, a promising athlete whose marijuana possession arrest could jeopardize his college scholarship.
No, this wasn’t the first time he smoked pot, the teen said, but he claimed he started his senior year caving to peer pressure. He said he has no plans to smoke again.
“(The arrest) was very scary,” he said.
“I bet it was,” McManus commented.
The panel asked how his parents reacted to his arrest?
He said he was grounded for three weeks and he now undergoes regular drug testing.
“I’ll never touch it again,” he added.
In the end, both men received similar punishments. They had to write thank-you notes to the officers who recommended their cases to CAP and perform community service.
The panel wanted the older man to look into grief counseling, and a few panelists whipped out smartphones to search for local bereavement support groups. They gave him 90 days to complete his tasks.
The younger man was told to write an apology to his parents and a report on what the policies and consequences are for getting caught using drugs or alcohol at the college he plans to attend. His CAP involvement will last 60 days.
LIFE CHANGER
When the Quakertown police chief first explained the CAP program to his officers, patrolman Robert Lee was among the skeptics.
“We all thought, OK adults? But when you start to think about it, they’re all first-time offenders. Eighteen is just a number sometimes, they act like 12 or 14,” said Lee, who oversees the Upper Bucks program.
But after Lee started sitting in on cases, he found striking similarities between CAP and Youth Aid panels, most notably that there is more going on in the lives of offenders beyond the crime.
Another benefit of CAP is that it’s a new option for high school students who are 18 and charged with underage drinking, another popular referral. Youth Aid panels are available only to those under 18.
“I still believe mistakes happen. I still believe every one deserves a second chance, I really do,” Lee said. “Three quarters of them do learn, it’s a wakeup call.”
Gaier, the Upper Bucks chair, agrees. Of the dozens of cases she has overseen over the last two years she recalled only two offenders who violated the CAP terms.
“There are times I see them in the community afterward and they are grateful,” she added. “It can be a life-changer.”

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