The idea is to give a kid who’s made a mistake a break, a chance to show the adult world: lesson learned.

Ridgefield police now have the option of sending young first-time lawbreakers to the town’s new Juvenile Review Board, which launched Jan. 1.

“It’s a way of having an alternative for first-time offenders, obviously for minor incidents,” said First Selectman Rudy Marconi. “This is a program run by the Ridgefield Youth Service Bureau, it’s not run by the Police Department.”

But of course the program begins with the police.

“The Police Department makes the arrest first,” said John Katz of the Youth Service Bureau. “And they determine whether or not they’re going to turn the case over the Juvenile Review Board, and Juvenile Review Board determines whether or not it’s an appropriate case.”

“The arresting officer makes the original determination,” Marconi said. “There are a lot of things the officer might decide are not appropriate for the Juvenile Review Board.”

First-time offenders are eligible for the Juvenile Review Board’s process up until their 18th birthday — after that the justice system no longer considers them juveniles, and they’re treated as adults.

“One of the benefits is no juvenile record,” said Detective Tom Dardis, the Ridgefield Police Department’s youth officer. “If a kid successfully completes the Juvenile Review Board program, they do not have a juvenile arrest record or a juvenile criminal record.”

While the police make the initial call whether a young offender should be considered for the Juvenile Review Board’s process, the decision to go that way is made by the board itself, in consultation with the offender’s family.

The juvenile offenders are part of that initial process, too.

“First of all, they have to admit they did whatever they’re accused of doing,” said Katz. “The parents have to on board.”

“Typically, an officer would respond to a call, a criminal complaint involving a juvenile,” Dardis said. “[O]nce they get there and determine the case, and the juvenile falls in the parameters of being a referral to the Juvenile Review Board, then that case is referred to me as the youth detective.”

“I call the review board and members and start the process of contacting the parents, making sure they want to be involved in the program,” Dardis said. “From there we’d have a meeting with the parents and the child and the Juvenile Review Board.”

“If the parent wants to be involved, the child wants to be involved, and it’s a case that’s appropriate for the Juvenile Review Board, then we’d schedule a meeting with the review board, the parent and child,” he said.

The offender’s case is diverted out of the juvenile justice system — the courts — and is handled locally.

“It’s a diversionary system,” Katz said. “A Juvenile Review Board will mete out consequences for whatever the offense has been. It’s not as though the kids is going to skate, and have no consequences.”

The Juvenile Review Board approach is designed to be flexible, and aimed at helping youngsters who have made a mistakes to learn their lessons.

“We would all — the parents, the child, and the Juvenile Review Board — determine the route to take to help the child,” Dardis said. “Maybe some letters of apology, writing an essay why what they did was wrong, the impact on the community. Maybe getting their grades up in school — improving their grades or attendance.”

Lesser offenses

The new process is only appropriate in some situations, for lesser offenses.

“On a broad scope, less serious crimes, mainly misdemeanors, non-serious offenses,” Dardis said. “Petty theft, assault, breach of the peace, those kinds of things.”

Relatively minor assaults would be considered appropriate for the review board’s process.

“If they get in just your typical fight, like a tussle at school, a tussle on Main Street, pushing, shoving, an assault involved with their parents, with their siblings,” Dardis said.

“As long as it doesn’t rise to a felony,” he said. “Use of a weapon would make an assault a felony. Causing serious bodily injury would make an assault rise to a felony.”

Drug and alcohol offenses would be eligible for consideration by the Juvenile Review Board if the charges were misdemeanors.

“As long as they’re not a felony, they would be appropriate,” Dardis said. “It’s on a case by case basis.”

The Juvenile Review Board may be used for other matters, as well.

“Maybe school-related stuff, truancy — it doesn’t always have to be a crime,” Dardis said. “Maybe loved ones or the school feel a child is going down the wrong path.”

Community perspective

Dardis said the local aspect of the program — having cases handled by people in Ridgefield, who know the community — could be critical to its success.

“Traditionally, across the state, when a kid gets in trouble what happens to the kid is determined by people that might not have any ties to the community,” Dardis said. “Our kids go to Bridgeport Juvenile Court now, and they might be sent to probation in Danbury.

“The goal of this program is to have people who are rooted in the community determine the best way to deal with kids that may have gotten in trouble,” Dardis said.

“Who better than people in the community who know the community?” Dardis said.

That doesn’t mean the offender will necessarily get off easy.

“It is not intended to have the youngster escape responsibility for whatever the misdemeanor,” Katz said.

Dardis and Katz will be serving on the Juvenile Review Board. Other members include Lisa Kuller and Doug Barile of the Ridgefield Youth Service Bureau, child advocacy attorney Sharon Dornfeld, Ridgefield Boys and Girls Club Director Michael Flynn, and Scott Robert of the Ridgefield High School guidance department.

Statewide success

Juvenile review boards all over Connecticut have shown that the approach is beneficial, according to Dardis.

“I think something like 80 percent of towns in Connecticut have some form of Juvenile Review Board,” he said. “The program has just been such a great success around the state. The vast majority of kids who are involved in the program don’t repeat offend — the recidivism rate is extremely low.”

Given all the parameters — a first-time offender, under 18, a relatively minor offense — the caseload isn’t expected to be overwhelming.”

“It could be one or two a month,” Dardis said. “I think that’s a fair guess, between 12 to 24 a year, tops.”

“I’m excited about this,” Dardis said. “The whole point of the program is to have people from the community put their heads together and deal with the issues.”

Katz agreed.

“It is not, in fact, designed as a diversion from responsibility,” Katz said. “But it is designed as a diversion from less-productive means, inappropriate consequences, as a result of the juvenile offense.”

“While we see this voluntary process as less harsh on the youngster, from the youngster’s point of view, it might be more intensive than the juvenile justice system,” Katz said. “We feel it could be more effective.”