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How Lane County's Justice System Works For Kids Who Start Fires

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Rachael McDonald
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When Eugene's Civic Stadium burned down in late June, it seemed like the whole community felt the blow. It turned out a group of local boys had started the blaze when they were playing with a lighter in the press box at the shuttered wooden ball park. It's uncertain what will happen to these 4 boys, age 10 to 12.

Folks with Youth Services won't talk specifically about the boys charged in the Civic case. Division Manager Al Levine describes how the system works. He says it isn't about punishment and detention. It is more geared toward treatment and rehabilitation.
Levine: "Number 1, community safety, number 2, holding the youth accountable for their actions and the most important thing is to provide the youth with services they need to gain the skills they need to be successful and not penetrate any further in the juvenile justice system."

When youth are referred to his agency, Levine says the first thing that happens is an assessment. Based on a number of factors, a treatment plan is made. It might include residential treatment, probation, education, and counseling.

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Credit John Stapleton
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Civic Stadium was destroyed by fire June 29th. 4 local boys have been charged with arson in the case

Levine: "So our goal is to try to keep kids out of the system. We succeed if kids never get in here."
 
Three of the youth charged in the Civic case are 12-years old. One is 10. Because they're so young, Levine says, their understanding of right and wrong isn't fully developed.
Levine: "Some of their brain function has not matured. They're often not good at making certain decisions or weighing risks and benefits. Those are skills that they need to learn and we have programs that are designed to teach them those skills specifically."

Mary Swindling, who has been a youth councilor for 25 years, now supervises youth councilors who are basically probation officers for young offenders.

Swindling: "What we want for the youth when they leave the system is that they're stronger. They're better decision makers. Their families are stronger. They communicate better. They're doing better in school. They're really connecting with their community to be a positive part of the community."

Youth Services has a program for fire-setters. It includes a class jointly operated by SERBU staff and members of Fire Marshall's office. Swindling says this is along with other programs designed for the individual.

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Credit Rachael McDonald
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Participants in a fire safety class created these art projects, displayed at the Serbu Youth Services Center in Eugene.

Swindling: "We do restitution work. We do community service work with our youth. And at times there needs to be sanctions if things aren’t going well."

Swindling says detention is one consequence if a youth isn't cooperating. But she says this is a way of getting the youth's attention.

Swindling: "You can't punish somebody into better behavior. You have to offer them what's missing and offer them something that they can take with them that's going to eliminate some of the poor decisions that they might have been making."

Youth Services and law enforcement are not identifying the 4 boys charged in the Civic arson. What's been released is that they are all Eugene residents enrolled in school, but currently on summer vacation. They're all charged with arson and criminal mischief. Their next court appearance is September 1st.
Thursday KLCC's Tiffany Eckert looks at the fascination people feel for fire and how officials try to educate young people about fire danger and its consequence.

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Credit John Stapleton
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Rachael McDonald is KLCC’s former News Director. Rachael has a BA in English from the University of Oregon. She started out in public radio as a newsroom volunteer at KLCC in 2000. After reporting for the Northwest News Network and KAZU, Rachael returned to KLCC in 2007 as Morning Edition host and a general assignment reporter covering politics, the environment, education, and the arts. She was hired as KLCC News Director in 2018. Rachael departed KLCC in June, 2022.
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