NEW BETHLEHEM — Jeffrey Miller, a Clarion County district judge, takes advantage of community resources whenever possible when sentencing juvenile offenders. He believes that community service options can pay future dividends for both people and their communities.
“In many cases, I would rather see kids working off their sentences under the right supervision rather than having their families send $400 in fines to Harrisburg,” Miller said on Wednesday afternoon. “The area does not see much benefit from that money and the fines put added stress on families who might already be having financial problems.”
To date, Miller has put young wrongdoers to work setting up and tearing down fundraising dinners for local nonprofit organizations, working at the library, helping out at the Redbank Valley Community Center and similar venues.
“What I hear back from the kids is that they feel great after doing something for somebody else,” he said. “There’s a feeling of connection to the community that they might not have had before. Some have liked it so much that they ended up working a few more hours than their sentences because they did not want to leave.”
Miller draws on the wisdom of other community servants when selecting young people for alternative sentencing. New Bethlehem Police Chief Robert Malnofsky, Redbank Valley High School secretary Susan Trimble and organizations’ leaders provide a lot of input during the process.
“After their input and my own background checks of the kids, it is easier to identify who might benefit the most from community service,” Miller said.
Miller said that Jennifer Gold, director of the RVCC, has become one of his go-to people in the process. While only one underage offender has done service at the center so far, it was a resounding success.
He credits Gold’s rapport with the teens as a big factor in finding out what is troubling them and then steering them in a better direction.
Among Miller’s cadre of unofficial youth rehabilitators are John Kerle of Charitable Deeds in Knox, Redbank Valley Municipal Park Director Tyler Weaver and Clarion County President Judge James Arner.
“Without Judge Arner’s cooperation, none of this could happen,” Miller said. “He is willing to cut a good kid some slack to avoid future problems.”
For district judges, community-service sentencing is more complicated than it was in the past. Because of insurance liability issues, young people may be barred from many work situations. Toby Township, Clarion County, was the last municipal body to run this type of program but ended it when it became necessary to assign two employees to supervise one offender.
Miller went on to describe the community service option, saying that a young offender without a court record often has his case continued on Arner’s recommendation. Miller hands down a sentence of a few hours of community service and, if it is completed successfully, Arner closes the case and the youngster walks away with a clean record.
“Having that clean record is very important later in life,” Miller said. “They have been punished, they paid up with their service and should not have to suffer further for it.”
Miller believes that an appropriate lighter sentence of this kind is more beneficial than draconian measures sometimes adopted by area schools.
“It does not make sense,” Miller said, “to punish a kid in the courts and then bar him from all extracurricular activities. Success in the band or on the playing field might be the only good thing going on in some kid’s life.”
Miller sees appropriate community service, such as reading to a younger child or a person in a nursing home, as adding something to an offender’s life, not taking away something that is already good.