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Arbitration program eases overburdened juvenile courts

In Seminole County, Fla., businessmen, teachers, and attorneys act as ''judges'' in informal juvenile hearings, sentencing youthful offenders to various court-approved alternatives.

Now wrapping up its third year, the Juvenile Community Arbitration program has successfully reduced swelling juvenile court caseloads, saved the county government thousands of dollars, and helped lead many youthful offenders away from lives of crime.

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Of the 1,225 cases handled through the program, less than 6 percent of the juveniles became repeat offenders - a recidivism rate that favorably compares with a national rate as high as 30 or 40 percent.

According to program director Gayle Hair, there are certain elements that have made the program a success:

* It deals primarily with first-time misdemeanor offenders - although those charged with third-degree felonies are now being selectively considered on a trial basis.

* It closely screens and then specially trains the volunteers in ''conflict resolution'' using role play, dialogues with judges and prosecutors, and other techniques.

* It gives the child far more time and attention than he or she would receive if shuttled through the overburdened juvenile court.

* It relies on making the child aware of his own personal responsibility rather than merely telling him what is, or is not, good for him.

* It gives legal sanction to the alternatives, allowing the arbitrators to hold the upper hand with court enforcement.

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''I see it as a trend in juvenile justice,'' says Ms. Hair. ''It works - we can see that from the figures - and it costs very little to operate, so it's easy to sell from a budget point of view.'' The program's annual $26,000 budget, funded by the county, pays Ms. Hair's salary, a secretary, and supplies.

Although the average age of children in the program is 14 and 15, those as young as four and as old as 18 have received its services. Most offenses were for petty theft (shoplifting), with trespass, criminal mischief, assault, battery, and possession of a controlled substance (marijuana).

In a typical case, the arresting officer will file a report with the local Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (HRS), which then contacts the state attorney's office. Ms. Hair, who works out of the county courthouse, screens the reports for appropriate applicants and asks the opinion of the arresting officer.

At the hearing, the child, his parents, the officer and the victim (if there is one) are urged to express themselves about the ''crime'' in an effort to enhance everyone's understanding of the event. ''Ultimately,'' said one arbitrator, ''the child should be led to a sense of heightened awareness of what he has done and how it affects himself and others.''

To emphasize the young offender's responsibility, the arbitrator then assigns a ''dispositional alternative'' which should be a creative reflection of the particular elements that resulted in the crime. Generally, they fall into the category of restitution, community service, or counseling. If any phase of the alternative is not completed, the case is then prosecuted.

In one case, a teen-ager who destroyed a neighbor's valuable landscaping was required to pay for it - by fishing in a local lake and selling his catch to a fresh seafood market. Children charged with assault or battery cases have been assigned to spend weekends working in homes for handicapped children. Traffic offenders have ridden in night patrol shifts with arresting officers, and written reports on the experience. Other alternatives include doing house and yard work for victims or working part-time to pay restitution.

Ms. Hair estimates that the cost to process each child through the program was $48. An HRS report shows that the average court-bound juvenile costs the system

,000 in legal costs, personnel salaries, and administrative paperwork. Some 14 other counties in Florida have duplicate programs, based on Seminole's success, and Ms. Hair's office has received over 200 inquiries from various interested districts around the country. Both South Carolina and Massachusetts are investigating the program, and the US Department of Justice has pre-qualified the arbitration program for an ''Exemplary Project'' to be used as a juvenile model throughout the country.

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