Juveniles under age 18 who commit crimes in Maine have basically two paths to follow. One leads through Maine’s Court System to Maine’s Juvenile Correctional Facilities. The other path stops short of courts and incarceration. Both paths start at the same gate. What makes Maine’s Juvenile Community Corrections Officers (JCCO) unique? They are the Gatekeepers.
The system was explained to me by Regional Correctional Administrator David M. Barrett who has worked over 28-years with the Maine Department of Corrections (MDOC). We sat in Dave Barrett’s office for hours. He walked me through two fictitious cases: First, a juvenile with a minor offense like shoplifting. Second, a juvenile committing a serious offense like a Class A or B Felony.
“If law enforcement arrest a youth, they have two hours to tell us. We determine if a youth is detained or not,” says Barrett. “Rehabilitation is the primary process for working with juveniles in our Juvenile Justice System,” he explains.
“Once we receive a police report we schedule a preliminary interview with the family, juvenile, and a JCCO,” Barrett continues. When a juvenile admits to the offense, the JCCO studies the severity of the offense, any prior history, the juvenile’s education, family circumstances, other factors. Then the JCCO “can make a decision that can divert the case from court,” says Barrett.
Most juveniles admit to their offense. “About 75 percent of our first time offenders get diverted from court. Better than 90 percent don't come back into the system,” Barrett says, reminding me, “We don't determine guilt or innocence. If the juvenile says, ‘I didn't do it,’ they will have their day in court.”
One option to court is the informal adjustment, “a written contract with the juvenile, legal guardian, and probation officer, to do things: Public service work, counseling, restitution, probation. If those consequences are satisfied, the case goes no further,” Barrett says, and the juvenile has no criminal record.
With a Class A or B Felony, Barrett says, “The severity of the offense supersedes any ability to divert. We give a Notice of Rights to the juvenile and family: Whatever they tell us can't be used against them.” But again, a JCCO’s initial work is similar. “At this point, we're looking at demographic information: Where are they living? Are they going to school? Who are their peers? How are they doing outside of this one incident?” says Barrett.
At some point before sentencing - called adjudication in the Juvenile System - the Court will ask the JCCO for a recommendation on what to do. Nothing in law forces a juvenile to speak or work with JCCO’s, but, Barrett believes it is in their best interest to do so.
He says, “As much as 50 percent of our work is done before the youth is found guilty or adjudicated. We're going to have to make a recommendation to the court if this juvenile is found guilty. You have kids where neglect, abuse is occurring. They don't have homes, they're couch surfing. A lot of these kids come with trauma, history. That's not an excuse. It puts together a story where, one can understand why they did what they did. That's the critical rehabilitation piece. We don't just lock them away, throw the key away. We give them multiple opportunities,” Barrett explains.
Probation is another recommendation option. Juveniles found guilty and sentenced to a Maine Juvenile Correctional Facility may receive suspended sentences or an indeterminate commitment to include probation.
When a youth is committed, says Barrett, “One of the JCCO's first responsibilities is creating a Post-Dispositional Report” delivered to facility staff. The Report tells the juvenile’s story, what got them to the facility, why, and mitigating circumstances such as education, home situation, and mental health issues.
Facility staff makes their own assessments. Meanwhile, “at team meetings,” explains Barrett, “responsible people provide input in creating a case plan” for the juvenile which answers the question: What tools and programs are needed for the youth to be successful
Barrett says, “But less than five percent of kids involved with Juvenile Justice have any contact with our facilities. And most often juveniles come out of a facility on community reintegration or probation.
“We consider somebody coming out of the facilities as high risk for their first 90 days. We have regular contact with that kid. If there are warning signals the youth is starting to slide, we're able to pick that up,” he says.
In closing, I ask David Barrett to tell me how he thinks juveniles in Maine’s Correctional System think of their Juvenile Community Corrections Officers. Barrett answers, “I think most kids would say their JCCO is fair. You've got to establish trust, be honest, upfront, and have very clear boundaries with kids. Your role is to be a positive adult influence.”