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Juvenile Diversion: A positive alternative to court for kids in trouble

Questioned for drug possession. Stealing change from cars. Accused of bicycle theft. Cortez Rodriguez, who goes by "C.J.," was racking up a remarkable set of small-time charges. And he was just 12. Now C.J. is 13 and thinks about being on the other side of the law someday: Practicing it. By all accounts, he's a changed person -- thanks in part to a local program that helps turn around the lives of children who brush with the law.

When he created Madison County's Juvenile Diversion Program more than a year ago, the Rev. Tim Stark envisioned more than a positive alternative to juvenile court for kids in trouble. Stark, an associate pastor at Collinsville's Son Life Church, hoped that both children and their families would use their half-year affiliation with the program to regroup and find new direction.

"I see this time as a speed bump that they must slow down for, to stop and communicate more in order to plot a course for their future," Stark said. It's no small irony, then, that when C.J. hit that speed bump in September, he was riding the bus home from school.

A fight with another boy that afternoon saw C.J. take a swing, his hand connecting instead with the driver's aide. Police arrested him for aggravated battery, but the court waived a $100 fine in exchange for a commitment from C.J. and his mother, Monica Rodriguez, to enter diversion. Upon successful completion in six months, his charges would be erased.

The beginning
Youth diversion in Madison County took root in late 2005 when Stark heard Collinsville's police chief, Scott Williams, tell a lunch group about how his officers had to ticket seniors who'd neglected their properties, though the owners were physically unable to do the work.

Juvenile Diversion's defining component, community service, was born just a few months later. Stark sees projects such as clearing yards and painting barns as an extraction of an apology through service. "It lets kids see the emotional return in doing good for someone who can't do it themselves," he said. A recent photograph of C.J. attests to the emotional return: In it, he is working a leaf blower during a January yard project, and he's all smiles.

No stranger to community service, Stark began forming his ideas about it some eight years before when a volunteer stint with The Boy Scouts of America introduced him to youth diversion in St. Clair County. Youth diversion came about there through the BSA's Okaw Valley Council in February 2000. Participants must attend 10 meetings in three months, and complete a minimum of 20 hours of community service to graduate.

St. Clair's program boasts a 9 percent recidivism rate. Numbers in the Madison County's fledgeling program put repeat rates at 29 percent as of February.

Stark said the difference might hinge on how each program looks at kids who don't meet its requirements. Some St. Clair County youths who drop out are called "redirects," because their cases double-back to court. Fairview Heights' police department has a redirect rate of 72 percent. Stark's redirect rate: 0.08 percent.

While both programs give young offenders a choice between enlisting in the program or facing prosecution, Stark says St. Clair County's initiative bears little resemblance to the one C.J. entered.

A lot of anger
Less than a week after he was charged, C.J. was one of 11 young people attending the first of 13 youth diversion meetings at Collinsville Christian Academy. "I was bored. It was worse than school," said C.J., who likes school and shines in reading. His love of books won him honors at Collinsville Middle School this year for high achievements in literacy

Monica Rodriguez recognized some of her son's peers right away, longtime trouble-makers in the neighborhood. "There were a lot of kids I knew," she said. "Some weren't paying attention. They were talking and laughing out loud." Her son fell right in line.

While the impulses that led C.J. to cave to his friends, steal and fight belie his disciplined focus on books, his negative behavior early in the program reflected a negative attitude at home. "He was always telling us he didn't care," said Monica Rodriguez. "He was always getting in trouble," said C.J.'s sister, Jazlin, 19. "He's got a lot of anger up in him," said his grandmother, Patricia Harkins.

As C.J. put it himself, "I was going down a bad path."

Billy Hayes
Two months into diversion, C.J. met Billy Hayes, and everything started coming together.

Hayes went to prison in 1999 for firebombing the home of an interracial couple in Collinsville. After serving eight years of a 25-year sentence, Hayes holds a GED, an associate degree and a handful of vocational certifications -- earned over time in three maximum-security prisons.

Today, he heads community service projects for Madison County's diversion program, and is the only volunteer who can hold his young audience's attention for two hours straight. As Hayes put it, "I am really loud. I'm real in-their-face."

His two-hour class is the story of his transformation and redemption, accompanied by a television newsreel that shows him leaving the Madison County Courthouse in cuffs. Hayes doesn't want to see anyone in his audience end up on the 6 o'clock news. "I was one of these kids," said Hayes, 39. "I messed up and went to prison."

C.J., he noted, was like any of the other inductees: quiet and remote. "They're good kids, and they're trying to figure it out." Hayes said. "A program like this would have made me feel like someone was at least trying to help me."

The dramatic change in Hayes' life after prison grabbed C.J. right away. He began to open up to Hayes, to talk about his life, the absentee father who made him so angry and his need for attention. "If I didn't get my way, I took it as an excuse to be bad," C.J. said.

The book
On March 13, C.J. and seven other kids sat side-by-side at the front bench of Madison County Associate Judge Dwayne Bailey's court in the county courthouse, preparing to graduate. In less than an hour, they would bring the program's alum count to 42.

Behind them, 10 inductees anticipated the beginning of their journey. Family members packed the courtroom in numbers generally accorded to high-profile trials.

During the program, Assistant State's Attorney Tom Gibbons addressed inductees, wielding a thick copy of the Illinois criminal statutes. Gibbons told them if they continued down a path of committing crimes, "I'll find ways in this book to ... take away your time and take away your future."

The budding lawyer in C.J. thought he might like to read that book. "If it's any good," he said.

Olivia Goldberg
4 May 2008

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