It wasn't easy for Keith Saunders, writing all those essays, cleaning offices for community service, changing schools and friends.
But of all the things that shook Saunders into turning his life around, it was the day he walked through the corridors of the county's juvenile detention center and saw kids his age in bright orange jumpsuits.
"That ain't where I want to go," Saunders, 17, said to himself.
Back before a table of six adults one recent Thursday afternoon, they sized up his progress. Change had come over the young man who had seemed cocky and defensive just a few months earlier, and they were pleased.
"How's school going, buddy? Good?" asked Irene Rodriguez, tapping him warmly on the shoulder.
"Yes, ma'am," Keith replied as the adults looked through his paperwork, checking off the goals they'd set for him months ago after he stole a bicycle. That act eventually brought him here, to the Neighborhood Accountability Board, or NAB — six members of the community crowded around a small conference room table in the back of a Sheriff's Office substation in Palm River.
"I didn't think most of the board thought you were going to come through," said Cornelius Pate Sr., a local pastor and Verizon contractor. "I'm impressed."
Rodriguez, the board's case manager, told Keith that because he completed his contract with the board, the state would drop its charges against him. He won't have to appear before a judge. His record will be cleared.
"This board has graduated you," she said. The board members applauded, and Keith stood up to leave.
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The board in Palm River is one of 11 throughout Hillsborough County, part of the Juvenile Diversion Program in the 13th Judicial Circuit.
The boards, consisting mostly of trained volunteers who live in the communities where they serve, run from Plant City to Brandon to South County, West Tampa and Town 'N Country.
They give a second chance to first-time juvenile offenders between the ages of 8 and 17 who admit to misdemeanors or third-degree felonies, provided that they carry out the contract or sanctions imposed by the board and don't reoffend, said Lora Karas, head of the NAB program.
Crime victims are invited to attend to speak to the offender and his or her family and the board. But the idea is to show the children that the community itself is a victim of their crimes, Karas said. Community members try to convey what is considered acceptable behavior.
The board can order the offender to write letters of apology, do community service, restrict TV viewing, undergo drug testing, attend anger management classes or therapy, paint over graffiti and construct wheelchair ramps. But Karas stressed that the boards get creative and tailor the order to the individual.
Once, a board member came up with the idea to have a teenage mother write a letter of apology to her infant, she said. The girl had been shoplifting by hiding items behind the child in her arms.
The embarrassment and accountability before the children's parents, the victims and community members often reduces offenders to tears or stirs a shift in attitude, Karas said.
"More than just an element of punishment, it ought to have to do with repair," Karas said. "What we'd like to do is have them see themselves when they are through with this as more a part of a community than they saw themselves before. We want them to feel like they have restored themselves as that person and they would be less likely to do something like that again. They will realize they do have something to lose, and that is some standing."
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A study done in 2006 showed that of the 143 children who completed the program two years earlier, just 7 percent committed another crime.
Among the 21 kids who failed the program and were sent back to court, 19 percent reoffended.
It was higher still for the 62 children referred to the program but found ineligible to participate — 24 percent later reoffended.
"If we can nip it in the bud, we can give them the help they need," said Ken Boatwright, one of the original members of the Palm River board when it started in 2002.
"I bought my house in '73 and this was one of the roughest neighborhoods of the county," he said. "We wanted to see it get straightened out."
He remains on the board and said members' diverse life experiences help balance their insights and reactions — from tough love to gentle coaching.
"We don't try to beat anybody over the head with anything. You try to do that, they are going to rebel," Boatwright said.
Through the years, teenagers who passed through the program have stopped Boatwright on the street or in the grocery store to thank him.
"You try to show them that what you are trying to do for them is not only helping them repay the community for what they've done, but it's helping them in the long run to get ahead," he said. "Some of them don't realize that until they've gone through the program."
The teens' family members are just as grateful.
"At first, he wasn't listening to me; he didn't want to attend school," said Keith's aunt, Deborah Fortson. Since Keith went through the program, she has seen a big change in him, she said.
She agreed that the tour of the juvenile detention center had the most profound effect.
"He was glad they let him out of there," she said.
Saundra Amrhein can be reached at email@example.com or 661-2441.