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Grant to diversion program changes teen lives

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Teens clean a school as part of the Juvenile Diversion Program.

As a retired Akron police officer, John Bailey has seen his share of criminal activity. Much of this activity is the result of repeat offenders with tumultuous backgrounds, some stretching as far back as childhood. 

Now, as a part-time deputy with the Juvenile Diversion Program, Bailey spends his time working with teens that have put themselves on that same dangerous path, helping them turn their lives around.

The Juvenile Diversion Program is part of the Summit County Sheriff’s Office and is geared toward first-time, low-level juvenile offenders. Created by Sheriff Drew Alexander, the program gives juveniles the opportunity to avoid going through the traditional criminal justice system. 

Candidates for the program must acknowledge their guilt and agree to abide by a contract that includes such provisions as obeying all government laws, obeying rules set forth by parents, completing all school assignments, writing an apology to any victims, and attending counseling. Most program participants are also assigned community service work, ranging from cleaning the local high school to doing a clean-up of area parks.

Then, if after two years the juveniles have met all the terms of their contracts and have not committed any further crimes, they can get their record expunged and move forward with a clean slate. This intervention is critical in preventing young people from continuing their pattern of criminal behavior into adulthood.

"If we can get to them after their first mistake, we may prevent them from making even worse mistakes in the future," said Assistant Sheriff Steve Finical. "It is vitally important to help those youth in the county who are at a critical crossroads in their lives."

After serving Summit County juveniles for nearly a decade, the program has achieved a success rate of approximately 90 percent. Participants are deemed successful if they fully complete the program. According to the Sheriff’s Office, an average of 70 juvenile offenders enter the program each year from communities such as Green, Coventry and Twinsburg.

Not all communities can afford to support such a program, however. As a result, Akron Community Foundation made a $10,000 grant to expand the program into two additional communities, the city of New Franklin and Northfield Center Township. In the past, these communities could not provide the financial support necessary to accommodate the program, as it costs approximately $130 for each juvenile offender. Now, the program in New Franklin is helping one boy and two girls, while the Northfield Center program includes two boys and two girls. 

"Because of (Akron Community Foundation’s) support, we can reach kids that are 'on the bubble' and help steer them in the right direction," said Alexander.

At least one of those kids, a boy named "John," is now on his way to college and a brighter future thanks to the diversion program and Deputy Bailey, who works with teens in the northern communities of Twinsburg and Northfield Center.

John was accepted into the program at age 14 after being charged with theft at school. This was his second theft in two years, and he was suspended from school, causing his grades to suffer even more. After careful consideration and with some reservations, Deputy Chris Bickett, who leads the diversion program, allowed John to try the program under the guidance of Bailey. However, John’s start was a rocky one.

"It was debatable whether he would finish all of his community service hours," Bickett said. "(But) every week when I would be my report from Deputy Bailey, John would improve little by little."

This improvement was sparked, in large part, by Bailey’s encouragement and support on a daily basis.

"Deputy Bailey made a very concerted effort to reach this young man and attempt to develop a relationship as a role model rather than dealing with him as a juvenile delinquent," Bickett said. 

To connect with John, Bailey often stayed after his shifts to watch John’s football games in the evenings, later making the long trek home to Canal Fulton. John soon developed a special connection with Bailey and worked closely with him to complete the program, preventing his theft charge from being filed with the juvenile court system. Recently, John approached Bailey to share some good news he received after exiting the program.

John was recruited by Western Reserve Academy and was given a full scholarship to play football at the prestigious boarding school in Hudson. To get the scholarship, John had to undergo a complete background check, and he told Bailey that if he had not had his help to complete the diversion program and get his charge dismissed, he would likely not have been eligible for the scholarship. It is thanks to Bailey’s compassion that John the opportunity to go to college – an opportunity he had never dreamed possible.

"Deputy Bailey really went above and beyond to reach this young man and did a great job at keeping him pointed in the right direction," Bickett said. "Sometimes, the diversion program success is measured by the completed-to-failed ratio. However, as you can see, it sometimes is more than just numbers."

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