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City police program helps juveniles

February 21, 2004|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

At first, the meeting progressed slowly between Detective Shawn Schultz of the Hagerstown Police Department and a 17-year-old boy charged with stealing guns from his mother.

But during the more than two-hour meeting, Schultz said the teen had turned around, was making eye contact with him and seemed to understand that what he had done was wrong. And not to Schultz's surprise, the now 18-year-old boy's mother has reported that her son is doing well in school, is reacting better at home and is on track to graduate in June.

Schultz, the director of the department's Juvenile Diversion Program, which aims to keep first-time misdemeanor juvenile offenders from having more run-ins with the police, has held such conversations with 289 children between the ages of 7 and 17 since April 2002. Only 40 of those children have continued to commit such crimes as stealing, possessing alcohol, assaulting, littering and misusing telephones.

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When a juvenile is charged with a minor crime, Schultz will meet the victim to see how they would like to pursue punishment. Although some victims do opt to take the case to court, Schultz gives them the option to have the assailant complete the diversion program, which includes a meeting with the 16-year police veteran to determine what programs outside juvenile court might benefit the child.

There have been a total of 1,435 juvenile arrests since April 2002, Schultz said, with assault topping the list of charges against first-time offenders. More often than not, peer pressure pushes children to commit crimes, he said, but since the causes may extend from their family life or from some other circumstance, Schultz meets with them to discover what has sparked their behavior.

"If there's a lot of anger, then we need to find out if they need anger management," he said.

Programs such as the Community Care Coordination, the Shoplifter's Abatement Program and the Crime Awareness Program, which gives offenders a peek into the harsh reality of surviving a prison sentence, are options Schultz weighs when interviewing the children.

When interviewing first-time offenders, Schultz said he takes off the detective hat and asks children to call him Shawn. It's important, he said, for children to know that he understands them and is there to help them.

"I understand why they did what they did, but they have to pay the price for their actions," he said.

The maximum sentence a juvenile can receive for committing a crime is to be sent to a juvenile detention facility until age 21, a reality Schultz reminds children of regularly.

"I ask them if they can name one thing that could be worth that," he said.

A father of two boys himself, Schultz said it's his listening skills that help him to have an effective program.

He recently walked through Western Heights Middle School to check on some children and heard excited greetings of "Hey, Shawn" as he walked through the halls.

"They don't think the same way you do," he said. "You have to think to see where they're coming from."

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