Ridgefield youth arrested for minor offenses will soon have an alternative to winding their way through the juvenile court system in Bridgeport to have an offense put on their record.

The town is nearing the completion of its Juvenile Review Board, a panel of eight members who will assign community service to young offenders who volunteer for the program.

“I’m not ready at the moment to advance the names that we’ve selected but … it’s a representative group,” said John Katz, president of the Ridgefield Youth Services Bureau. “I think what we wrestled most with, at the end, is trying to get gender balance. I think we’re a bit heavy on the men, but that’s the way it shook out.”

Katz said the group will include himself, Ridgefield Detective Tom Dardis, two other members of the youth services bureau, an attorney who has worked with youth for many years, a local clergy member, a member from the school district, and a representative from the Boys & Girls Club.

“It’s a diversionary program, it’s for minor violations of the law — misdemeanors, felonies would not apply,” said Chief Jeff Kreitz of the Ridgefield Police Department. “The purpose is corrective action without having them have to go to court,” he added.

Around 125 of Connecticut’s 169 towns have a Juvenile Review Board, according to Francis Carino, supervisory assistant state’s attorney. He said the boards are not governed by statutes, and so therefore can set their own criteria for which cases they will take.

“Most JRBs, when they are first starting out, will accept only first-time offenders charged with misdemeanor charges,” Carino said. “As the JRB matures, some have accepted minor felony cases and also second-time offenders.”

For juvenile offenders, that means giving up their rights to an attorney and due process before the court — review boards only take cases in which the youth admits to the offense and volunteers to go before the board, Carino explained.

In some instances, offenders have been offered a job after volunteering at a public golf course; another repaired his relationship with the arresting officer by working with the officer at a bicycle safety event, Carino said.

“It is purely voluntary so the parent and the child must agree to the diversion because, by doing so, they give up the constitutional rights they would have if the case were referred to the Juvenile Court,” he said.

Not the first

Ridgefield’s last police chief, John Roche, had the idea of creating a review board in town. But it would not have been the first.

Katz recalled that in the 1980s, the town had what he called a “nascent juvenile review board,” which went by another name, and which he served on at the time.

“We met with youth that had some very, very minor offenses,” Katz said. “All I recall, frankly, is a couple of cases of mailbox damage.”

He said in most cases the youth were simply ordered by the board to repair the mailboxes. In another case, the youthful offender paid restitution for property damage, he said.

Eventually, Katz said, the precursor board “fizzled.”

“It wasn’t structured properly, and it tipped over on its own weight,” he added.

Benefits

Carino said that, when used correctly, review boards help everyone involved because the offender and his or her family receive the help they need without burdening the child with a juvenile record.

“Every time that child fills out an application for a job, school, a loan or virtually any other benefit, they will be able to answer ‘No’ when asked, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime or an adjudicated delinquent?’” he said.