A 15-year-old St. Louis girl had stolen seven T-shirts from a Wal-Mart, but because she was a first-time offender, she was offered a chance to stay out of the court system and keep her record clean. She had to appear in the fellowship hall of a a church, where a group of neighbors called a Neighborhood Accountabillity Board would determine her punishment. It is an initiative the juvenile division of St. Louis City Family Court started four years ago. The purpose is to provide a grass-roots alternative to juvenile detention, says the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
Results so far are encouraging. From November 2003 to last June, the neighborhood boards have considered 212 juvenile cases. Of those, 14 percent of the offenders got into trouble again, compared with 30 percent who go through the court system. “This is restorative justice at its roots,” said Joe Scalise of the family court. “For too long, the court has been a separate entity from the community. We know these kids need others to help them through.” Similar neighborhood programs have sprouted up across the U.S., including one in St. Louis County, where six neighborhoods participate. Other St. Louis neighborhoods have expressed interest in starting similar boards, but the courts have lacked the funding to expand beyond the eight that are in place.