An option for young offenders

Originally published in the Charlotte Sun Herald, April 13, 2013

PUNTA GORDA — Donald Witherall was hurt. He was disappointed that someone he considered a friend would ransack his home on Hilnick Drive in Punta Gorda, going through his drawers, flipping over his mattress, and stealing a multitude of items, including coins, rings, electronic equipment and tools.

But those things, Witherall said, were replaceable. The priceless items that were stolen were letters his uncle wrote to him from Germany while serving in World War II, and his medal, which he gave Witherall, when he was 9. Those items never were returned.

In a hearing late last month at the Charlotte County Human Services building in Port Charlotte, in front of a Neighborhood Accountability Board, Witherall said he did not want monetary restitution for the items taken. Instead, he wanted an apology from the offender .

Witherall’s home was one of four in the Washington Loop Road area east of Punta Gorda that allegedly were burglarized by two teens in August 2012, while the homeowners were away.

One of the boys, George Stuck, 17, of the 4000 block of Michigan Drive, Punta Gorda, faces multiple armed and unarmed burglary and grand theft charges. However the younger boy allegedly involved, an 11-year-old, will serve 60 community service hours, will pledge to do better in school, will pay $20 in restitution to two of the victims, and will undergo a psychiatric evaluation.

His sentence was determined at the NAB hearing, a community-based decision-making process that serves as an alternative to incarceration for minors.

The NAB receives its referrals from the Department of Juvenile Justice, with the State Attorney’s Office approving the recommendation. The bureau also runs a civil citation program. Under that program, referrals come directly from law enforcement officials who issue citations in lieu of an arrest for first-time offenders who commit a misdemeanor offense. Instead of going to jail, offenders are referred to the NAB for a sentencing case plan.

‘Each case is looked at independently,’ said Betzy Toro, NAB coordinator. ‘Every case plan is unique.’

After Toro meets with those offenders individually and goes over the crime in detail, a board of volunteers conducts a trial-like conference, during which board members and victims can ask about the crime. They come up with a plan that an offender must complete, or he will be reintroduced into the system.

‘It’s not really that innovative,’ said Emily Lewis, Family Services Division manager with county Human Services. ‘They have been using this process for over 20 years in other states, but in Florida, it’s something new.’

Charlotte County Sheriff Bill Prummell said referring youths to the NAB program not only speeds up an otherwise lengthy process (all sanctions of the case plan must be completed by the offender within 90 days), but also saves money.

‘When you think about all the hearings, the judges, bailiffs, attorneys and others that have to be present in that courtroom, you can get an idea of how expensive a trial is,’ Prummell said. ‘The NAB board is made up of volunteers, so it’s much, much cheaper.’

The program has been in place for over a year, and so far it has had a 100 percent success rate, meaning no one who completed the program has committed another crime, according to the sheriff.

Multiple facets of a case are addressed during the hearings. In the Washington Loop case, the youth’s parents were questioned about allowing their son, then 10, to spend the night with a 17-year-old. The board also requested that both parents get a psychiatric evaluation.

The board listed Witherall — a neighbor the boy had known all his life — as the contact who will make sure the juvenile completes his community service hours. Part of the case plan says the boy must spend at least 10 hours working on each of the homes he broke into.

But coming to a decision was difficult for the board members on the NAB because the youth first said he was forced by his friend to burglarize the four homes.

However, board members said they would put him back through the system if he didn’t first admit to breaking into the homes and stealing a multitude of items, including a Maytag washing machine, several motors, pocketknives, a riding mower, tools, a guitar and six harmonicas.

At one point, the boys also allegedly helped themselves to Eggo waffles and syrup, leaving dirty dishes in the kitchen sink of one of the houses.

‘We know you weren’t forced,’ Witherall said. ‘You sat down and ate beans and waffles.’

Tears streamed down the face of the 11-year-old boy as he apologized to Witherall.

‘I’m sorry I disappointed you,’ he said. ‘I’m sorry that I violated your home and took those items.’

Toro said Wednesday that the boy has raised the restitution, and he and his family are undergoing mental health evaluations.

Email: mfavorite@sun-herald.com

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