As part of Bucksport’s Diversion to Assets program, which helps young people who have committed nonviolent offenses stay out of the corrections system, participants learn about issues related to substance abuse. These goggles simulate the effect of being drunk. PHOTO BY CHARLES EICHACKER

Bucksport diversion program helps steer young offenders toward the right path

BUCKSPORT — A local program that steers young people who have broken the law away from the criminal justice system and into work opportunities that force them to build connections within the community is showing results.

Funded by the Maine Department of Corrections (DOC) and administered by the town’s recreation department, the Diversion to Assets program allows young people under the age of 21 who commit nonviolent offenses to have their records cleaned.

Only one-tenth of those who have participated in the program have re-offended, according to DOC records.

First-time participants do eight hours of education and 16 hours of community service. The latter requirement is essential, according to Barbara Ames, the town’s youth programs coordinator, who administers the Diversion to Assets program.

It is also more engaging than it sounds. Depending on their own interests, participants have worked alongside all manner of adult mentors: authors, hairdressers, equine veterinarians, Maine wardens, sports coaches.

“They’re not out shoveling snow or raking leaves,” Ames said. “They’re doing something that really looks at their strengths. I’ve had kids that, for example, wanted to go into nursing. They have been able to go to hospitals and do their community service there.”

Participants have been referred to the program by several area police departments, including Bucksport, Searsport, the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office and the Maine State Police.

Most are first-time offenders, though some have been through the program before, Ames said.

Their violations have primarily been for substance abuse or possession — alcohol, tobacco, marijuana — but some youths have been charged with shoplifting.

Ames says each case is unique. When offenders enter the program, they answer questionnaires about everything from drug use to school attendance to family life.

From their answers, Ames may decide to focus more on alcohol abuse, drugs or other aspects of their lives. She shows educational videos and has the participants write reflective essays. She has them wear special goggles that distort their vision, simulating the effects of being drunk.

Ames also encourages participants to celebrate their strengths and accomplishments by going through a list of reasons to “applaud” themselves. Have they built a robot, made a scrapbook, danced the hula, taken a hunter’s safety course?

If so, they have earned the right to applaud themselves. The idea is to elevate simple activities and build their self-confidence.

“It’s not just that I sit here and lecture on the fact that they made a poor choice,” Ames said. “They already know before they came in they made a poor choice.”

With funding from the DOC, the Diversion to Assets program is run by Spurwink Services, a provider of mental health services around the state. Susan Savell, now Spurwink’s director of prevention and positive youth development, started the program in 2008.

Four other Maine communities have similar programs, each administered by a part-time coordinator like Ames: Waterville, Augusta, Biddeford and Sanford.

There are several advantages to the Diversion to Assets approach, according to Savell and Maryann Corsello, a psychology professor at University of New England who helps evaluate the program’s outcomes. They have developed it using research from the Search Institute in Minneapolis, which researches how to make best use of a child’s assets.

Surveys have shown that participants leave the program with a better attitude and a decreased likelihood of engaging in risky behaviors.

“For kids who come into the program, their perception of themselves is low or negative,” Corsello said. “One of the things that really changes about them is they see themselves in a more positive light, and not just as youth who got into the trouble with the law… They tend to let go of some of that negative identity they’re wrapped up in.”

She and Savell attribute that success, in part, to the constructive, lasting relationships the youths develop with adult mentors as part of their community service.

More concretely, Diversion to Assets participants are unlikely to re-offend. As of last spring, 370 kids — about 150 of them in Bucksport — had participated in the Diversion to Assets programs.

According to data compiled by the DOC in January 2013, the re-offense, or recidivism, rate for all participants was 14.2 percent, less than Maine’s total youth recidivism rate of 21.8 percent for the same time period. In Bucksport, the rate was 10 percent.

Diversion to Assets is not the only program that allows kids to be diverted out of the justice system, according to Colin O’Neill, the DOC’s associate commissioner of juvenile community corrections. Others include the Restorative Justice Project in Belfast and Youth Court in southern Maine.

In 2015, the recidivism rate for all Maine youths who committed first-time offenses and were diverted out of the court system was less than 8 percent, O’Neill said. Of all the state’s first-time offenders, 80 percent were able to be diverted.

The number of young people in the corrections system has dropped considerably in the last decade, O’Neill continued, reducing costs for the state and also helping the young offenders avoid criminal records.

Last year, the steady drop in youth incarceration rates allowed DOC to close Mountain View Youth Development Center, a juvenile correctional facility in Charleston, O’Neill pointed out.

“You don’t want to incarcerate youth. It’s very expensive and the outcomes aren’t always that great,” O’Neill said. “The research shows if you bring low-risk offenders into your system, you can make them high-risk offenders.”

Having a criminal record can also make it harder to get jobs, enter the military and do other things.

That was the greatest appeal for the mother of a 16-year-old Winterport girl who recently went through Bucksport’s program. (She asked for their names to not be used.)

One night last year, the girl was in a car her friend was driving through Bucksport. Several other girls were also in the vehicle, and they had an unopened container of alcohol, the mother said.

They were stopped at a police checkpoint, and instead of getting charged for underage drinking, the girl was sent to the Diversion to Assets program. She completed the program after volunteering with a homeless service provider and at a horse stable.

“It was her first time. She’d never been in trouble. She had no record. She was not drinking,” the mother said. “For kids that get in trouble or do something that they don’t know the consequences, I think it’s a great program. They don’t have a record that follows them.”

Charles Eichacker

Charles Eichacker

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
Charles Eichacker covers the towns of Bucksport, Orland, Castine, Verona Island, Penobscot, Brooksville and Dedham. When not working on stories, he likes books, beer and the outdoors. [email protected]

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