Monday, September 06, 1999

Lockland helps its kids in trouble

Community court keeps cases local

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        LOCKLAND — Young people from this area who commit minor crimes won't have to go downtown to see a magistrate. Under a new program of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court, they can have cases heard in their own community.

        Lockland is the first in the county to have a new grant-funded community court that will bring magistrates to the village a couple of days each month to handle juvenile cases.

        The goal: to make the court process easier on everyone involved.

Easier for everyone
        Parents could avoid the hassle of taking off work and finding transportation for downtown court appearances. Police and school officials would no longer have to wait downtown for no-shows. And magistrates could work more closely with parents, schools and police to find solutions tailored to the needs of each child.

        “Downtown, we're holding 400 hearings a day, and we've got everything from rape, robbery and murder every now and then, all the way down to truancy,” said Jim Ray, administrator for Hamilton County Juvenile Court. “It's a large system that churns very fast. (With community court), we'll be able to slow down and dedicate more time and attention to each individual case.”

        Lockland's community court, which starts Sept. 17, mirrors a program Sharonville has had for nearly 20 years. The county is considering establishing others in Norwood, Roselawn, Golf Manor, Evanston and Avondale, Mr. Ray said.

Minor offenses
        Here's how it works: When police or school officials cite a youth for truancy, assault, unruly behavior or other minor offenses, the county schedules a hearing in community court.

        Once or twice a month, depending on the caseload, an official juvenile courtroom is set up in the municipal building. Magistrates from downtown take turns presiding.

        Community courts are different from the unofficial courts many communities already have, Mr. Ray said. Unofficial courts are overseen by volunteer attorneys and can handle only first-time offenders. Community courts have broader power, although trials and hearings for major crimes are still handled downtown.

        Early this year, Hamilton County received a $700,000 federal grant administered through Ohio's office of Criminal Justice Services, Mr. Ray said. Half of that goes toward monitoring major offenders. The other half goes to establishing community courts.

        Lockland's police and school district lobbied for the program as a way to handle juvenile cases swiftly and locally.

        “We were exploring alternative ways to deal with at-risk students,” said Roy Hill, Lockland School District superintendent. “We had been to unofficial court several times, but that didn't solve the problem. Kids tend to talk, and the first one that goes through the system goes back and tells everybody they're just going to slap you on the wrist. We needed an official court with a true magistrate.”

        Lockland could see several benefits from the new court, local officials say.

        • Police and school workers would have to go downtown less often. That saves time and money — especially if an accused child doesn't show up in court.

        “Normally, when I send someone to juvenile court, it's going to be three to four hours of overtime, and with a time-and-a-half rate, I'm paying about $100 a court appearance,” said Lockland Police Chief Ken Johnson.

        • Parents and kids will have an easier time getting to court.

        “We found a lot of people were giving excuses — they would have been in court if they had the money for bus fare, or a way to court, or money for parking,” Mr. Johnson said.

        • If a youth doesn't show up in community court, police officers can go to the child's home and pick him or her up, Mr. Johnson said.

        • Police and school workers have more time and leeway to help magis trates understand each child's situation and come up with punishments, Mr. Ray said.

        In Sharonville, 268 kids appeared in community court last year. No information was available on whether the program has reduced truancy or juvenile crime in that area. But Dennis Peterson, superintendent of Princeton School District, said the program is a way to focus on troubled youths early and handle them within the community.

        “We really have no statistics on the number of lives that have been turned around,” he said. “But we all know of kids who probably would have gotten into a lot more trouble as they grew up had they not had some intervention.”

        Lockland's community court will serve just the Lockland School District for its first month or two, Mr. Ray said. Discussions are under way to expand the court to Reading, Wyoming, Lincoln Heights and Arlington Heights.

        Other communities are encouraged to inquire about the program, Mr. Ray said.


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