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Sauk County officials say they hope a new pilot program will offer first-time juvenile offenders a second chance through role models and mentors while avoiding punitive contact with the criminal justice system.

“We need it, we don’t have it, and we want to do better with kids,” said Sauk County Juvenile Justice Supervisor Mindy Mattson.

Sauk County Human Services Director Daniel Brattset said the department will launch its youth justice diversion program in the next 30-60 days.

The initiative will focus on first-time juvenile offenders — mainly between the ages 11 and 15 — who have been referred by police for non-violent incidents such as vandalism, theft or disorderly conduct, Brattset said.

In what Brattset said is a less intrusive process than juvenile court, the pilot program would require selected youths to spend time with adult mentors at the Boys & Girls Club in Baraboo learning about positive social behaviors.

Mattson said when police officers refer first-time juvenile offenders to Sauk County Human Services, she will process those referrals, check whether the child is eligible, and write a letter to parents to determine whether they want to be part of the program.

Michele Yates-Wickus, director of Student Services in the Baraboo School District, said juvenile misbehavior sometimes is unrelated to school and instead the culmination of ongoing family issues.

By withholding criminal punishment and offering a second chance to first-time offenders, Yates-Wickus said she hopes the community will see a positive ripple effect.

“It’s a great way to bring in mentors without criminalizing students and using restorative practices,” Yates-Wickus said. “It’s a great opportunity for our community and kids and families.”

Brattset said it’s important to keep children out of the criminal justice system whenever possible because if authorities’ intervention is too harsh for first-time offenders, it can create situations where recurring negative behaviors are solidified.

Kids who participate and complete the diversion program will receive a one-year membership at the Boys & Girls Club, Brattset said.

“This is an alternative, which would allow them to get credit for doing this,” Brattset said. “It’s an opportunity for them to avoid the consequence of having that citation.”

Growth expected

Brattset said Sauk County’s Criminal Justice Coordinating Council will evaluate the pilot program at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year. He said officials will look at how many first-time juvenile offenders are successfully diverted from police citations and other legal punishments.

If all goes well, Brattset said the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council would expand the pilot program to adopt similar initiatives in other nearby communities such as Reedsburg or Sauk City.

On average, Brattset said the Baraboo School District sees roughly 20 citations each year.

Mattson said the Sauk County Criminal Justice Coordinating Council found through research that risk assessment tools regarding recidivism can suggest whether certain youths are likely to re-offend.

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When dealing with low-risk re-offenders, Mattson said minimal intervention is important.

“These are the kids that are going to grow out of it. They are going to self-correct, this is just normal adolescent growth,” Mattson said.

Karen DeSanto, executive diirector at the Boys & Girls Club in Baraboo, said by partnering with local schools and county officials to teach behavioral strategies, first-time juvenile offenders will have a safe place for one-on-one conversations with adult mentors.

“This is absolutely a prevention model,” DeSanto said. “It’s meeting the kids where they are and pushing them to be beyond that.”

DeSanto said the Boys & Girls Club serves children from ages 7 to 18 and encourages healthy lifestyles, leadership and attention to academics.

After school, children are given meals, may complete homework and can attend support groups, yoga sessions or cooking lessons, DeSanto said.

Children and teens also have free time to use recreational facilities with board games, air hockey, foosball, basketball hoops, TV shows, video games or boxing lessons, depending on the age group, DeSanto said.

Improved behavior

DeSanto said club members tend to perform better in school and reinforce positive social behaviors.

Boys & Girls Club Operations Director Kyle Crosby said the Baraboo location has about 326 youth members, with roughly 80 of them showing up on any given day.

Keiji Patton, 17, said when his family moved to town several years ago, he was a shy pre-teen who was scared of the world.

The Baraboo High School senior said he nervously branched out and joined the Boys & Girls Club, where he found a second family.

Patton plays football, has taken boxing lessons and wants to train to become a certified boxer after graduation.

He said other local youths — whether they’re shy pre-teens or first-time juvenile offenders — also could benefit by joining the club.

“It’s been a great time being here,” Patton said.

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