A few years ago, when Raeanna Raines was 13 years old, she broke into a house. She was eventually caught and charged in the youth court system and as part of her punishment, she completed community service through the Center for Restorative Youth Justice in Kalispell.
Four years later, Raines doesn’t sugarcoat it: She hated the program when she first arrived. Besides community service she was also given the opportunity to meet the victims of her crime.
“When I met the people whose house I broke into, it changed my whole perspective on the program,” Raines said.
Shareen Springer, executive director at the center, said there are dozens of stories just like Raines’. Since 2009, the center has helped 950 youth and more than 1,000 victims of crime. Today, the center works with about 250 to 300 kids a year. According to Springer, fewer than 10 percent of the young people who complete the program commit another crime and 95 percent of the kids who enter the program finish it. Because of the program, Flathead County has seen a 28 percent drop in the number of young people who are sent to juvenile detention facilities.
The statistics show how much has changed since the 1990s, Springer said, when juvenile delinquency got so bad that the city of Kalispell decided to create a youth court. The idea of the youth court, which was used for minor offenses and crimes, was to have it made up of young people so that kids were actually judged by a jury of their peers.
“The community came together to do something different and treat kids differently,” Springer said. “We spend so much money as a nation jailing young people, but it doesn’t work.”
The program takes youth who have committed minor offenses and has them complete community service on the recommendation of their probation officer; everything from working at the soup kitchen to removing graffiti and painting murals. That’s the type of work Taylor Palmer did when he entered the program after being convicted of a series of minor offenses.
“It helped me get on the right path,” Palmer said. “This program has helped me be the best person I can be.”
Springer said the center works with a wide variety of offenders and offenses, from teens who have committed assault to an 8-year-old who stole some cheese.
The program also works with at-risk children and with schools to get students involved with the center. Springer said even children who have never committed a crime have found the center’s programs useful. According to the center, 26 percent of high school students in Flathead County typically consume five or more alcoholic drinks in a row at least twice a month and, in 2012, at least 18 percent of high school students seriously considered taking their own lives. Springer said the stats show a need for the program outside of the criminal realm.
“If nothing else I want kids to know that there is a place that cares for them,” she said.
Springer said the center’s biggest contribution to the community is helping children and teens get back on the right track and involved in their community.
“One of my favorite quotes is that ‘hurt people hurt other people,’ and it’s so simple but it makes so much sense,” she said.
Two Bear Farms in Whitefish is hosting a family style harvest dinner fundraiser for the center on Sept. 18. The event will feature a beer and wine paired five-course meal with some of the valley’s finest ingredients. For more information about the center, visit www.restorativeyouthjustice.org.