Police consider new peer court

Sean C. Morgan

Of The New Era

Sweet Home Police Department is considering whether to reopen a peer court program when it fills a vacant sergeant position.

The vacancy, left by Sgt. George Dominy, who went to work as an instructor for the Police Academy during the summer, won’t be for a new sworn police officer. Now the department is developing a civilian position instead of hiring a new police sergeant.

“One of his duties had been evidence custodian,” Police Chief Bob Burford said. “About half of his time was spent on evidence issues and the remainder with other administrative duties that have been absorbed by the other two patrol sergeants.”

That includes the new traffic team, which had been supervised by Dominy, Ryan Cummings and Randy Gill, Burford said. Those two officers were split between the two patrol teams.

The most important of those duties was evidence custodian, Burford said. “We need someone that can dedicate as much time as necessary to that job.”

But the job won’t extend beyond half time, he said, “so we’re looking how best to meet the needs of the community” with the remainder of the full-time position.

The department looked at using the position to deal with abandoned vehicles, Burford said, but the city’s code enforcement office already handles that.

The department started looking ways to see if it could follow up on cases better by helping crime victims, he said, making sure they get any reports they need for insurance and generally helping them through the process.

The person filling this position would be available to make suggestions for better securing residences so the victims are not victims again in the future, he said. The position will also assist Det. Cyndi Pichardo with Neighborhood Watch programs.

“At the same time, Linn County notified us they’ll be discontinuing the Peer Court program,” he said. “Peer Court has been very important to Sweet Home.”

Peer Court took first-time youth offenders who pleaded guilty to a minor citation or crime and sentenced them to a variety of consequences ranging from writing papers to community service. Frequently, the consequences would include service as a Peer Court juror.

Peer Court used juries of volunteer youth and the first-time offenders to decide on sentencing in front of a volunteer judge.

Funding cuts led the Linn County Juvenile Department to cut the Peer Court program throughout the county this year.

“Based on the feedback I’ve had from the School District and our school resource officer, John Trahan, they believe the program has been invaluable,” Burford said. “If the city doesn’t provide a peer court program, it’s possible that some offenders may only receive a letter that says ‘don’t do it again,’ and that’s not much of a deterrence.”

Local resident Beth Shook contacted Burford as part of a college project and expressed interest in getting the peer court back up and running, he said, and the department now includes a job description that would include a peer court program if the department moves forward with it.

Shook is a criminal justice major at Western Oregon University. She is pursuing a bachelor of science degree with plans to work in juvenile parole and probation.

She is taking a class called “Community Collaborations,” she said, and part of the class work is developing a project that gets community organizations working together.

She had been a volunteer with the Peer Court program, which was cut, Shook said.

“It all kind of fit together when I was sitting in this class and had to come up with a project,” she said.

The program is good for the community and youth, she said. When youngsters make mistakes, it holds them accountable.

Right now, Shook is putting the program together step by step, based on information from the now-defunct county Peer Court program. Her first requirement was to talk to the police chief, to find out if building a new program is possible and if he would support it and to find out if the Juvenile Department would be willing to send referrals to the local peer court.

Both are willing, so she is looking at solutions for space and working with community organizations to make sure the juveniles have options for community service.

Shook, Burford and Trahan also will look at Silverton’s program to see how that police department runs it. For her class, Shook is preparing documents and paperwork and assisting with the job description for the coordinator, she said, essentially setting it up and running it “on paper.”

Right now, the program is in the earliest stages, she said, but the number of juveniles reported in The New Era public safety log appears to be growing.

“My worry is the kids aren’t held accountable, you’re going to see juvenile crime go up,” she said. At the same time the city has many opportunities for community service sentences. “A lot of nonprofits are willing to work with these kids.”

Burford has not decided for sure yet whether to resurrect the program, he said.

The job description is under review by the employees union, Burford said, and he hopes to move forward with it as soon as next week.