McPherson County is implementing a program focused on restoring young people through accountability, rather than using an adult system for young offenders.

“What we know isn’t working is sending them away from their families and communities and making them feel like outcasts,” explained Thea Nietfeld, director of community justice programing with Offender Victim Ministries. “Young people learn more going through this process than they do going through a court process meant for adults.”

Now, groups of volunteers, called a Neighborhood Accountability Board, work with a facilitator to hold an offender accountable and restore relationships between them, their victims and the community. The program is a collaboration between OVM of Newton, the McPherson County Attorney’s Office and Community Corrections District 9, which includes McPherson and Harvey Counties.

“Restorative justice is the frame of this new program we’re starting in McPherson,” Nietfeld said. “One of the more experienced and trained volunteers meets with the offender and their parent. That’s when we start determining what’s appropriate. If it’s a Walmart shoplifter, Walmart might send someone to meet with them, but most likely not. That’s when the Neighborhood Accountability Board comes in. They stand in both for the victim and the community.”

The board works with the offender in repairing relationships with their victim, or guiding them to realize the extent of a crime.

“The volunteers might point out that the store employees might not get their bonuses if there’s too much shoplifting, and ask if they realized that they were hurting them specifically by shoplifting. How could you make that right for all the people who were harmed?,” Nietfeld said. “In some other cases, like if there were a school fight that escalated, it might be really important to have the victim there to help resolve the root of the problem. It’s always the victim’s choice, but we always encourage the victim come and sit down together so we can make sure that we get to the root of this so it doesn’t come back.”

The program complies with the Kansas Juvenile Justice Reform Act of 2016, which uses restorative justice to resolve the current issues and hopefully lower chances of re-offending.

“The statute looks at evidence of what’s effective. A huge task force of legislators and people in the field worked together in 2015 to come up with the understanding that we weren’t doing it right. Continuing to send young people to detention of any kind made them more angry and reinforced their identity as outsiders. So they didn’t come up with something that we should do, per se, but they said that communities are different and each community needs a different solution.”

The solution working in this area is the NABs. Cases are first vetted by the county attorney’s office and the community corrections department before they’re determined as appropriate for the board.

Nietfeld assisted in developing the program in Saline County before starting with OVM a year ago.

“This program is an evidence-based practice and it’s been working well in Saline County for five years. There, they’ve had more than 300 cases and have been 95 percent successful in completing the program. Their recidivism rate is in the 80s, which is still very good.”

The program is coming to the area partly because of Circles of McPherson County. The organization focused on bringing families out of poverty has a number of participants affected by the current system. These individuals wanted to improve outcomes for the next group of young people.

“Some of the participants had been involved in the juvenile justice system when they were young and they said it was wrong, it didn’t help them, it’s wasn’t good for them and wasn’t trauma informed,” Nietfeld said. “They didn’t want any kids they know to go through the same thing. They wanted to make it better for future generations.”

A free training session will be held from 9 a.m. to noon on Sept. 30 at 122 W. Marlin, down the ramp from the county attorney’s office on the second floor. Those interested in serving on a Neighborhood Accountability Board, or want to learn more about the program, are welcome to attend.

“If you volunteer, you can usually attend as an observer once before you sit on the panel. Then, you’d be one of three people on the panel who interact with the offender, the facilitator, and perhaps the victim if the victim is present. Then you work out an agreement with them,” Nietfeld said. “Ideally, you’d be called on once or twice a month. Now, we’re kind of running our volunteers a little ragged so we’re hoping to add more volunteers.”

The board differs from other practices because the volunteers focus on positive improvements rather than punishments.

“It’s more like taking responsibility for a young person in your neighborhood and helping them think through what happened and how to make things right. It’s not judging, it’s collaborating with them. Usually the young person leaves feeling good about themselves and wanting to accomplish the goal they agreed to do because they were part of the decision about what they need to do,” Nietfeld said. “We ask them about their strengths and ways they can help, so they have the chance to share that and get supported for that so they feel good about themselves and their potential. That’s what helps a person become a good citizen — when they know they can contribute positively.”

The statute became effective in McPherson County on July 1, but funding for the program won’t start for some time. A local coordinator for the program will start work Oct. 1, so OVM is soliciting support for start-up costs to pay the coordinator’s salary and other office needs.

For more information, visit http://offendervictimministries.org.

Contact Cheyenne Derksen Schroeder by email at cderksen@mcphersonsentinel.com or follow her on Twitter at @MacSentinel.