With at least 250 Prince George's County juvenile offenders owing $170,000 in restitution payments to their victims, the County Council is setting up a jobs program that will give some of the indigent offenders an opportunity to start paying their debts.
Set up through a $297,000 grant from the U.S. Law Enforcement Assistance Administration and $33,000 in county funds, the program will offer on-the-job training in construction work to 75 youths and community service work at the county's Patuxent River Park near Rt. 301 for 225 others.
While there is no requirement for Juvenile Court Judges to sentence juveniles to the program, youth coordinator Rolande Blier told the council yesterday that the project would provide "an excellent restitution program in lieu of incarceration. This will not only give these kids an opportunity to earn money to pay their victims back but will provide vocational training for them."
For the last year Juvenile Court judges have been ordering youths convicted of burglary, vandalism or minor assault to make restitution for their crimes. Under Maryland law the parents of the offenders can also be held liable for property losses or damages up to $5,000.
According to Blier, many of the convicted youths are unable to make the payments "simply because they don't have the money.
"Recently there was a young man from Seat Pleasant who had vandalized a house," Blier said. "He was ordered to pay $200. But he doesn't have a job and he doesn't even have the skills to get one."
The project would pay 16 to 18-year-old participants the minimum wage of $2.65 per hour while they are learning carpentry skills.
Youths too young to obtain work permits would be assigned landscaping and gardening work at the Patuxent River site, Blier said.
Circuit Court judge Vincent S. Femia, who handles juvenile cases, said the council "may have opened up a local job corps" with the program. "But what will happen when we get calls that this is slave labor and involuntary servitude?"
While acknowledging that the jobs program would give him "one more option in sentencing these kids, Femia added, "how am I going to order a kid who goes to school to take a job? The common denminatr with deliquent children is that they are 'E' (failing) students. They can't read or write. The only spinoff this program could have is if it will get a kid out working and doing something."
Prince George's County Council member David G. Hartlove said he was unconvinced that the probram is justified. "Is everybody going to have to learn how to use a hammer, a nail and a screwdriver? Are we going to require that they become bricklayers and construction workers?"
Blier said that youths unable to perform the construction and landscaping work described in the program could be directed into other on-the-job training programs planned by her office.
"We have letters of interest from McDonald's (restaurants) and Giant (Food Inc.) telling us that with proper supervision, we may be able to Place kids there. We just want to take drop-outs and unemployable people and get them involved in a marketable skill. Once they get a job, they might not get enticed into more criminal action."
Assistant State's Attorney Elias Silverstein, whose office seeks restitution judgements against juvenile offenders and their parents, said the jobs program could be compatible with his own.