Judge Offers Young Offenders An Alternative

Posted: September 20, 1987

Running errands for patients at Bryn Mawr Hospital is not how most teenagers would choose to spend their free time.

But for more than 25 youngsters arrested in Lower Merion Township in the last year for underage drinking, criminal mischief or shoplifting, it sure beats the alternative: a fine of up to $300 and a permanent court record.

Those are the choices available to many teenagers who appear before District Justice Henry Schireson in his courtroom on Montgomery Avenue in Narberth.

While it is not unusual for juvenile offenders in Montgomery County to be sentenced to community service, Schireson, who is also a lawyer, has gone one step further.

In 1986, he set up a program with Bryn Mawr Hospital that allows him to sentence young offenders to 24 or more hours of volunteer work there.

"The effect is often far more meaningful and far more enduring than a fine," said Schireson. "At the hospital, they get the opportunity to see human consequences firsthand, to see the devastation" caused by drunken driving or drug abuse.

"It sobers them. They see how fragile (people) are," said Sandy Hess, director of volunteers at Bryn Mawr. The program won for Bryn Mawr the 1987 Recognition Award for Outstanding Achievement in Volunteerism, an award given by the Pennsylvania Association of Hospital Auxiliaries.

Schireson suspects that the program is working, because he has yet to see any of the sentenced teens back in his court. In addition, three of the youngsters have continued as regular volunteers at the hospital after completing their sentences.

"I think that community service is often the ideal response to first offenses," he said.

A fine can lack sting in a wealthy community such as Lower Merion, said Schireson, who has watched youngsters whip out their own checkbooks to pay their penalties. More often, the parents pay it for them.

Volunteering at Bryn Mawr was a "drag," but "it has kept me away from crime since it happened," said a 15-year-old Main Line boy who was arrested in June for criminal mischief. He and three friends were caught while driving a car into mailboxes in Penn Valley.

"If it was a fine, you just forget and pay it," said the boy, who asked not to be identified. "At the hospital, you're doing it a long time after you did (the crime). We had to fix the mailboxes, too."

"If I had a choice again, I would do the work instead of paying the fine," he said. "I'm not going to do any more crime."

"It makes you think and re-evaluate everything," said an 18-year-old

college-bound boy who was arrested for drinking at a Lower Merion party.

At the hospital, he spent four full days running errands to the pharmacy, filling water pitchers and chatting with patients.

"I was there all day long," he said. "It was time I could have been making money."

On the other hand, he conceded, "I got a lot out of it. I learned about

procedure when I was in the pharmacy. It was actually kind of interesting."

At least 10 district justices in the county practice alternative sentencing for offenders, said Harold Borek, county court administrator for the district

justices.

The judges use their own initiative to develop sentences, since the county has no coordinated community-service program, Borek said. The community- service sentencing was jeopardized last year when the state legislature adopted an amendment requiring that district attorneys approve each alternative sentence.

"It wasn't practical, and it threatened existing programs," said Borek.

Fortunately, he said, the law was revised and "now we can go forward with a viable sentencing program" without prior approval. Borek said that the county may draw up guidelines on alternative sentencing for all local courts, but that it hesitates to interfere with local justices, "who may know what's needed and what may work."

comments powered by Disqus
|
|
|
|
|