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Local volunteers take active role in youth justice

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It began as a dare. Two elementary school girls told police that a man tried to abduct them while they were leaving school. He had a knife, they said, and he chased them.

The news sent shock waves through this Phoenix suburb, still reeling from the disappearance of another elementary school girl abducted in January.

Mesa police fueled up the helicopter and called out the dogs, initiating an intensive six-hour search. Worried parents drove their children to school rather than let them ride buses.

Then the girls' stories began to unravel. By the next day, they admitted they made up the whole thing.

The girls could face a juvenile court judge, but it's more likely they'll face members of the community instead. A justice panel made up of volunteers from the community will listen to the girls, ask questions, and then decide how they should make amends.

The concept, known as balanced and restorative justice, is part of an exploding trend in juvenile justice being practiced throughout the United States.

At a time when laws for juveniles are getting stricter and prison sentences stiffer, these new forms of discipline focus on reparation and rehabilitation rather than punishment, and recognize individual victims and communities as stakeholders in that process.

Here, the diversion program is run by Maricopa County's Juvenile Probation Department and can involve an appearance before a "community justice committee" made up of adult volunteers drawn from the community, or before a "teen court," in which a young offender faces sentencing by a panel of peers.

Like most programs, the one in Maricopa County is an option for juveniles who admit to minor offenses and are first- or second-time offenders. Sanctions can include community service, counseling, financial restitution, letters of apology, and jury duty.

In the Mesa case, police spokesman Sgt. Earle Lloyd says he hopes the girls will perform community service at the police department and, more important, get counseling. "That was our main concern," he says.

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