The Fourth Circuit Solicitor's Office is looking for volunteers to work as juvenile arbitrators.
Arbitrators will conduct hearings set by the Department of Juvenile Justice. They will hear from all of the parties involved, the juvenile offender, the juvenile offender's parents, the victim and law enforcement.
Chesterfield County Solicitor Jay Hodges said those selected for this program are young people who have made a mistake and must learn they have injured society and need to make amends.
The program, which will put offender and victim in the same room, includes restitution, apology and public service. Saying "I'm sorry" is an important part of the process, Hodge said.
A strong advocate for youth, Hodge said South Carolina has more at-risk juveniles than any state, and the law is often impersonal.
"Kids have it tough these days," he said.
A Boy Scout leader, Hodge guided trips to Europe for his Boy Scout troop. He emphasizes to them that there is a world outside and more to life than dropping out of school, working in a dead end job, marrying too young for the wrong reasons, winding up divorced, paying child support and sitting in a bar getting drunk on weekends.
He said the underlying principal of the program is that it is easier to put a youth back on the right path than it is to reform an adult. "They're a little thickheaded in Columbia when it comes to that. It costs $22,000 to $25,000 a year to keep an adult in prison and much more than that to incarcerate a juvenile for a year."
He said the state policy has been slow to develop, and dollars hard to come by. "We just don't have the money in rural counties for prevention and intervention programs so we have to rely on adult volunteers."
The program has taken 10 years to develop and been under way for three years without a lot of help from the state, which only pays $11,000 yearly for a staff person to follow up on the process.
Hodge said he thanks his early upbringing as a Baptist for instilling in him the belief that if you have faith, the money will come. His programs get help from the sheriff's department and fundraisers like golf tournaments.
"We are the only one of 16 districts in South Carolina that has a youth camp. If it weren't for volunteers, we wouldn't be able to sustain."
Volunteer arbitrators will hear from all of the parties involved, determine the facts of the case, and prepare a contract for the juvenile to complete. Volunteer arbitrators must be 21 or older, possess a valid driver's license, have no criminal record, have a high school diploma or the equivalent, and complete the 21-hour certification training. Hodge said the best arbitrators are retired teachers, sales people, people with experience in living.
Volunteers may participate in one or more arbitrations a month, according to the time they can provide. Hodge stressed that this is not a mentoring program, which assigns a mentor to a juvenile for a period of six months or longer. The arbitration process occurs in one session.
Training will be held Feb 10, 14, 15, 17, 21, 22 and 24 from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Darlington Library. If you have an interest in becoming an arbitrator, you may contact Loriane Shumate, (843) 398-4210, or e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.