Courts work to redirect troubled youth

Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune Idaho 2nd District Magistrate Judge Victoria Olds presides in juvenile court at Lewiston, where young, first-time offenders often get diversion agreements which put them on a different track than that of being incarcerated. Barry Kough / Lewiston Tribune

LEWISTON — In the smallest courtroom on the second floor of the Nez Perce County Courthouse Magistrate Victoria Olds makes the decisions that guide kids when others won’t.

One of her decisions on this day is that she will not order the mother of a seventh-grader to take an alcohol test every time she brings her son to the juvenile probation office in Lewiston, a drive of almost 30 miles round-trip. The test is recommended by prosecutors.

Olds, a former Grangeville defense attorney, was appointed as 2nd District magistrate and assigned as the Lewiston juvenile court judge this year. Olds’ latest assignment also specializes in child protective services, and in some cases she holds sway over the parents of the juveniles who the court seeks to protect, rehabilitate or punish.

But, not in all cases.

“I am hesitant to having the mother submit to a UA (urine analysis),” Olds tells participants seated at two tables on the courtroom floor below her bench.

Mandating the action may fall outside her purview, she says. It is the mother’s 14-year-old who today is the object of the court, not the mother.

The case is one of about 190 that Olds will oversee this year in addition to her load of child protection cases. The number of juvenile court cases in Nez Perce County has remained relatively stable over the past decade with a few spikes, including in 2013 when cases popped to 214, and in 2008 when the local court had 217 cases, according to court records.

Program to help young offenders

The number of juvenile court cases has decreased statewide since 1995 when Idaho adopted its Juvenile Corrections Act, according to state statistics.

Prior to 1995, juvenile cases fell under the watchful eye of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, but a new approach pushed by attorneys and judges, as well as law enforcement and service providers, resulted in a different focus with the Juvenile Corrections Act. The system made the courts and the community stakeholders in an effort to reduce and prevent crimes committed by young people. It also sought to rehabilitate young offenders, so they may seamlessly re-enter the fold of society.

A diversion program was developed in an effort to keep juveniles who are amenable to rehabilitation, or whose misdeeds do not rise to a criminal level, from becoming formally entwined in the judicial system. At the discretion of attorneys and a board of community members, including school district representatives, school resource and probation officers and defense and prosecuting attorneys, the diversion program allows kids a probationary period to shape up. If they comply, they stay out of the system and their juvenile record is quashed.

Because diversion requires the input of many, in smaller jurisdictions such as Lewiston the program can sit idle because of turnover, high caseloads or a simple lack of time.

Juvenile Prosecutor Jessica Uhrig, who was hired by the Nez Perce County Prosecutor’s Office three years ago, has recharged the Lewiston diversion program. It has seen an increase in cases over the past two years.

“It’s a pretty big push in Idaho to give kids who are first-time offenders a shot at diversion,” Uhrig said. “Only if they fail diversion does it come back to a formal court process.”

If the juvenile has committed a property crime, or by some measures hurt someone, the diversion process may include a conference in which the offender meets with the victim to learn how the juvenile’s actions affected them.

Uhrig is also working to establish a truancy program to get habitual truants back on track and back into school.

Nez Perce County Prosecutor Justin Coleman said one of the ambitions of his office was to secure a permanent juvenile justice prosecutor. The position, in previous years, had a high turnover rate, he said.

With the hiring of Uhrig, he said, the office fulfilled that goal.

“We put a prosecutor in that position who is a long-term fit, instead of an entry level,” Coleman said. “That makes a big difference.”

In the two years from 2014 through 2015 in Nez Perce County, 75 juveniles took part in the diversion program, according to court records.

When a juvenile gets into trouble and authorities are involved, often it is up to Uhrig to make a quick decision on whether to have the offender taken into custody and placed in Lewiston’s detention facility, or to earmark them for diversion.

“It’s my call if we divert, or file a petition to bring them into the court process,” Uhrig said.

Nez Perce County annually budgets $1.5 million for its juvenile program. Of that, an allocation of $853,000 is used to operate its juvenile detention facility and $683,000 goes to juvenile justice services, which provides probation officers and administers a number of programs to help juveniles get on track. Public defenders represent juvenile clients as part of their county public defender contract, and the same goes for the prosecutor’s office, said Patty Weeks, county auditor.

“The whole idea is to get these kids on track as young people, so we don’t have to deal with them later in adult criminal court,” Coleman said.

Magistrate: ‘I’ve been leaving (most records) open’

Most of the juvenile justice system is shielded from public scrutiny, Olds said.

But there is a misperception, she said, that all juvenile cases are sealed, and that the public isn’t privy to the records of young offenders.

Idaho juvenile rules, which guide the court, are clear that in most cases the public is allowed access to juvenile court records for children over the age of 14, although attorneys can ask that records be sealed.

Olds prefers that records stay open and juveniles be accountable for their actions.

“I’ve been leaving (most records) open,” Olds said. “I don’t see a reason for closing them.”

Although the records of juveniles who are older than 14 are open, she said, a judge can determine via written order that extraordinary circumstances exist to seal some felony records.

Olds requires attorneys to file motions to seal cases, creating a formal process in which counsel argues how the case meets the extraordinary threshold.

“We want to make sure the public knows if there are serious offenses committed by older kids.” Olds said.

All juvenile records are initially closed until the juvenile has an admit-deny hearing, similar to an arraignment for adults, she said. That can take 30 days from the time a case is filed, depending on the circumstances.

If the open record policy appears stringent, the court’s main focus is keeping the juvenile’s best interest in mind, Olds said. Her court sessions are an easy back and forth between the judge and attorneys, the juvenile offenders and the parents or guardians involved.

‘We want to help that kid,’ she said

In the latest case, Olds, her hair cropped short, wearing a black robe, and a pair of glasses perched near the end of her nose, looks down upon the courtroom at the 14-year-old.

He is dressed in civilian clothing and seated next to his attorney.

The boy has had a series of alcohol issues for which he was brought before the court last year, Olds reaffirms.

But his mother moved to another state without the court’s consent, returning only recently to Idaho after being off the radar of Lewiston juvenile probation for many months.

“We’re starting from the middle,” Olds tells the attorneys and the boy’s mother.

Although there is no indication that the boy has been in trouble, an attorney for the child says, there is some concern that the mother is often under the influence. In addition, she has not submitted the family’s correct address to juvenile probation.

After ironing out the latest details, Olds reiterates the conditions of the boy’s probation.

“No alcohol, no prescription drugs without a prescription … be on your best behavior,” she says.

It is just one case on this month’s docket.

There will be many more.