Professionals Need Not Apply: South Carolina Juvenile Arbitration Program Owes Success to Volunteers

By Alford, Susan | Corrections Today, December 1997 | Go to article overview

Professionals Need Not Apply: South Carolina Juvenile Arbitration Program Owes Success to Volunteers


Alford, Susan, Corrections Today


"After a lot of terrible mistakes in this country ... wasted time, wasted money, wasted lives, we 're finding that ordinary people figure out best how to get prevention working in their own communities."

- Marsha Manatt Schuchard

The concept of neighborhood justice is not a new one. Over the past two decades, criminal justice professionals have recognized that, in order to stem the tide of cases entering the family court, they must not only take an active lead in crime prevention, but they must also resolve the conflicts which result in juvenile arrests. Criminal justice publications purport the effectiveness of programs which emphasize "restorative justice," especially with respect to victim-offender mediation. National proponents of mediation models sell the cost-efficiencies of using nonpaid staff to resolve the differences of conflicting parties. The courts have, in many instances, become adept at creating diversion programs which take criminal cases and place them in an indefinite holding pattern, or allow the substitution of a standard set of punishments (restitution, fines, community service) as methods of avoiding the prosecution of cases.

In the process of promoting the merits of neighborhood justice, however, criminal justice professionals have, in many cases, taken the "neighborhood" out of the model. The fundamental premise of community prevention and intervention is that we all must get involved, as citizens, in addressing the antisocial behaviors which threaten to destroy our safety and security - in our schools, on our streets and in our homes. One of the primary problems we face in our communities is that we have grown dependent on our social institutions to "solve" crime. In Habits of the Heart, Robert Bellah poignantly expresses the alienation which most citizens feel from the community and government institutions which are supposed to represent their interests. When community members do not feel they can impact social change through their participation in community institutions (schools, churches, civic groups, advocacy groups, etc.), they often withdraw into their own worlds - not so much from apathy, but from helplessness. It is not, Bellah says, that people do not want to contribute to the overall resolution of social problems in their neighborhoods - it is that we have not allowed them meaningful access to our social institutions which allow community mobilization to occur.

The challenge for social institutions such as the family court, then, is one of empowerment. How do we get out of the way and empower communities to address crime as they experience it? How can we promote community intervention without trying to control it for the needs of a bureaucratic system? Do communities really want to put the "neighborhood" back into neighborhood justice, or are they more comfortable with intervention efforts which rely on professionals to deal with criminal behavior? Is it too late for neighborhood justice to be successful? Do our communities really want to address their own social problems, or are they content to pay more and more each year to lock up individuals so that they feel safe, albeit temporary?

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Model Program

A program that answers such questions is one that has been operational in South Carolina for 13 years. In 1983, the Lexington County Grand Jury (11th Judicial Circuit) began investigating neighborhood justice models after an increasing number of misdemeanor offenses began flooding the Lexington County Family Court. They enlisted the support of Solicitor Donald V. Myers to investigate diversion programs which might allow for more effective resolution of nonviolent juvenile cases before they ever are registered on the court docket. One such program, which had been in operation in Seminole County, Fla., since 1978, was called "juvenile arbitration." In this program, volunteer "arbitrators" mediated with all parties - including the juvenile, his or her parents, the victim and the referring police officer - to produce a contract, which the juvenile then was required to complete in 90 days under the supervision of the arbitrator. …

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