Saturday, July 17, 2004

Young offenders learn how crime affects victims

By Carrie Spencer
The Associated Press

COLUMBUS - Three times so far, a woman has told a room full of delinquents how a 14-year-old boy on a bike fired a stolen gun into a group of boys on a sidewalk, hitting her son in the back of the head and killing him instantly.

The pain is fresh every time Rita Rathburn describes that night in August 1997. But for her, it's a way to make 14-year-old Anthony Rathburn's death seem less pointless.

"I thought if I could prevent one kid from going out and doing the same thing to somebody else's kid, then in a way I've done something beneficial," said Rathburn, 57, a Columbus bus driver.

Rathburn is one of a group of crime victims who tell their stories in Ohio's juvenile corrections centers to youths who might be hearing a victim's perspective for the first time. This summer, she did the same thing for social workers being trained that they, too, need to keep that perspective in mind when treating the juveniles.

Ohio has one of the best programs in its adult prisons for keeping victims informed and helping them meet with offenders, but the juvenile system has been slower, said Gordon Bazemore, a criminal justice professor at Florida Atlantic University in Fort Lauderdale.

Developing true empathy - understanding the victim's pain - can help prevent the child from committing another crime, Bazemore said.

"It's still quite possible for a juvenile to go through the system and never hear anything about his victim," he said. "A lot of times, it's just about processing these kids, getting them into some kind of program or putting them on probation."

More than 1,500 youths have gone through the victim awareness class since it began in Ohio in 2001. The three victim service workers at the Department of Youth Services travel among the eight corrections centers to teach them.

Not all experts on the movement known as "restorative justice" are fans of the classes. Bonnie Bucqueroux, executive director of Crime Victims for a Just Society, based in Mason, Mich., said empathy can't be taught, and the victim stories likely won't help a youth prone to explosive anger learn how to control those impulses.

"Kids find the stories interesting and dramatic and fascinating," she said. "Whether it leads to a change in behavior is a question."

That change likely requires a face-to-face therapeutic meeting with the victim of that offender's crime, Bucqueroux said.

Presiding Judge Sylvia Hendon of Hamilton County Juvenile Court disagreed, saying most victims never want to see the offender who hurt them. Any attempt to help offenders understand the full effect of crime can only help, she said.

"It's amazing when you talk to these kids how devoid they are of life experience," Hendon said. "They have no clue that the community as a whole is a victim."

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