New program looks to reconcile victims and juvenile offenders in Merced

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comMarch 26, 2014 

A new program that brings juvenile offenders and their victims together to reconcile is set to kick off next week, in the hope that it can give young people a fresh start.

A $154,600 grant from the California Endowment will pay for the first two years of the Victim-Offender Reconciliation Program, which works as a mediator between qualified juvenile offenders and their victims.

The idea is to give both parties a chance to “put themselves in the other person’s shoes,” said Ben Weemes, director for the Merced-based program.

That meeting is a large part of how the program can be successful, Weemes said. The two parties come together and the outcome feels like an agreement, he said, as opposed to an order handed down from a judge. “They make an agreement, and they actually get to buy in,” the 25-year-old said.

Weemes said he has been working a few days a week in Merced for the past six months to lay the groundwork needed before he takes his first case Wednesday. He will work as mediator between the offenders and victims.

A similar program in Fresno has been around for about 30 years. It has seen success with relatively low recidivism rates, as well as success getting offenders to complete their community service and repayment obligations, according to program leaders.

In Merced, Weemes said, the juveniles are eligible to be part of the program after their time in court if they are first-time offenders, have committed a felony, agree to the terms in the program and if the victim is willing to participate. Certain serious crimes can exclude an offender from the program.

Weemes said other cities, like Reedley, have started their own programs that imitate the reconciliation program, but the move to Merced is something of a new endeavor.

The funding for the program, which mostly will go toward Weemes’ salary, is funneled through Fresno Pacific University and Building Healthy Communities, a nonprofit that works to improve low-income areas of Merced.

There are a number of benefits for an offender who is willing to join the program, including possibly avoiding time in juvenile hall.

A 2010 study from the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation found that more than 81 percent of juveniles who have gone to juvenile hall are arrested again within three years.

Getting a young person to straighten up early is key.

“It’s the first time through the court process (where) we believe we can intervene in this way,” said Jeff Kettering, assistant chief of the Merced County Probation Department. “Maybe it will change their behavior and they will not get back in the system again.”

Kettering said he applied for the grant that pays for the program. He thinks putting a face on the offender and the victim has benefits for both sides.

“That’s the whole purpose, really, to make the victim whole and give the victim some satisfaction,” Kettering said. “Most offenders don’t ever get to see what happens to their victims.”

Kettering said he’s seen the program have success in other cities. Merced has never used a program like it, he said, and will assess if it’s working here after a year.

Additional funding could be available through the California Endowment after the two-year run of the program.

One person who is convinced that the program can work is Antonia Guzman, whose younger brother went through Fresno’s version of the program when he was 15 years old.

Guzman, a 22-year-old Fresno Pacific student, said her brother got caught vandalizing a bathroom at Edison High in Fresno.

Guzman said her brother felt pressured to tag graffiti in the bathroom, because he wanted to fit in with the wrong people. But, after meeting with the school principal and his family, his eyes were opened that he was headed the wrong way.

“The principal approached him and said, ‘You have potential,’ ” she said.

On top of that, her brother saw that his actions were hurting his family.

“We got to talk about how it affected the family, and how my parents were affected,” she said, adding she believes the program works.

Her brother, Carlos, is now 18 and ready to enroll at California State University, Fresno, or Fresno Pacific.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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