A proposed Scott County program hopes to decrease the number of auto thefts committed by juveniles by putting first-time offenders face-to-face with their victims and holding the youth accountable for repairing the harm they caused.
Known as the Auto Theft Accountability program, it would be a victim-offender mediation program targeted at first-time offenders, said Jeremy Kaiser, director of the Scott County Juvenile Detention Center and diversion programs.
The program, first of its kind in Iowa, would be available only to juveniles accused of a car theft and in cases with a clearly identified victim. Detention staff would facilitate a meeting between the offender and victim at which they agree on a plan for how the offender would repair the harm, he said.
In the past 18 months, the auto theft problem has "become quite an epidemic," Kaiser said Tuesday as he introduced the proposed program to the Scott County Board of Supervisors.
According to Kaiser, 180 juveniles were arrested for auto theft in Scott County last year, of whom 104 juveniles, or 58 percent, were new offenders. The growing problem also has doubled the number of juveniles in detention and is filling the juvenile court system.
"I don't think this is the silver bullet that we're going to end it all in one swoop," he said, adding, "This is what the county can do to reduce some of that crime."
Kaiser said many youth could not pay total restitution so the plan could include "going old school" and having the youth work it off by doing yard work or other tasks for the victim. He even suggested involving a body shop to expose juveniles to the work it takes to repair what they've done.
"We're trying to find a way to engage the juvenile and get them to have empathy for what they did," he said.
"All court proceedings would be put on hold" while the juvenile has three months to complete the agreed-upon plan.
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By successfully completing the plan, "the youth can avoid court and being adjudicated," he added. "If they fail to progress, they go back to original court proceedings and are adjudicated."
The program is modeled after similar programs in New Zealand and Oakland, Calif., that have been effective in lowering recidivism and providing satisfaction to the victims and promoting accountability.
"I think a lot of victims will jump at the chance to sit down with the juvenile who stole their car and tell them all the harm that came from this," Kaiser said. But he also anticipates some victims will choose not to participate.
The startup program was approved Monday for a $99,000 grant from the Iowa Department of Human Services' Decategorization Board. It will reimburse the county's staff time and supplies for the program.
Kaiser said three of his staff members, who have a combined 50 years of experience working with youth and families, have indicated interest in working with the Auto Theft Accountability Program.
Supervisor Ken Croken and Supervisor Ken Beck both questioned what outcomes and measurable results Kaiser expects from the program.
In addition to lower recidivism, Kaiser said the program would move the case quicker as staff would begin the process as soon as possible, compared to waiting three to four weeks for a court date. It also would lower the number of juveniles in detention and the costs of detaining them.
"It costs about $200 a day to detain a youth," he said, adding that the average stay has increased from 14 days a decade ago to 30 days now.
With the rash of vehicle thefts, the detention center often is low on beds and must arrange to house youths in other detention centers outside the county. He said the Fiscal 2020 budget has $400,000 budgeted to cover the costs of detaining youth out of county.
The board of supervisors will vote Thursday night on approving the project but showed their full support.
Kaiser said the target start date is April 1 after the staff can be trained.