Russians learn about juvenile justice system

Posted June 23, 2009, at 7:57 p.m.

CHARLESTON, Maine — A group of five Russians who work in their country’s court systems are touring state juvenile justice facilities in Maine and listening in on meetings about juvenile issues to learn how things are done here.

The group toured the Mountain View Youth Development Center on Tuesday and, through an interpreter, asked questions about such things as how juveniles end up at the facility, how the facility became accredited, how long people stay and how they get out.

“In Russia there is no criminal justice system for those below age 14,” Christine Thibeault, Cumberland County assistant district attorney, said while standing in the facility’s lobby. “All of their very young offenders are not handled through their corrections programs, they’re handled through the education system.”

Thibeault went to the Archangel region in northwest Russia last year as part of the Open World Program, the same program that brought the Russian group to Maine. The Open World Leadership Center at the Library of Congress is designed to “enhance understanding and capabilities for cooperation between the United States and the countries of Eurasia and the Baltic States,” a press release about the program says. This is accomplished “by developing a network of leaders in the region who have gained significant, firsthand exposure to America’s democratic, accountable government and free-market system.”

Different Approaches

Irina Burmagina, 38, an assistant to a judge in Lomonosovsky District Court in Russia, said through an interpreter that “in Russia, there is no juvenile courts. It’s in development” and that the trip to Maine has given the group insights into how to get things under way.

On Monday, they sat in on the Juvenile Justice Task Force in Augusta.

“In Russia there are specialty judges that work with juveniles, but they have a very narrow specialty,” Valentina Koroleva, 29, a judicial assistant for the Lomonosovsky District Court, added through an interpreter.

The two countries’ juvenile justice systems differ greatly, she said.

“The conditions for living here are much more better than Russia,” Koroleva said while nibbling at a large lunch that consisted of a fried chicken sandwich, barbecue chips, macaroni salad, carrots, chicken soup, yellow cake with chocolate frosting, and juice, all prepared by youth incarcerated at Mountain View.

Another difference in the juvenile justice systems is in sentencing. In Russia the maximum sentence is up to 10 years for juveniles, Aleksandr Proselkov, 51, department head of the Archangel Region Judicial Department, said through an interpreter. “They can actually stay longer, but they can also get a special status to go out-side of the facility, for example to take out the trash or [get] supplies.”

In most cases “they cannot leave,” he said.

Eric Hansen, Mountain View’s superintendent of operations, explained to the group that Maine youth typically are sentenced for an indeterminate amount of time and get out when they reach goals concerning attitudes, behaviors and circumstances.

“We believe long incarceration is not good for kids,” he said. “The average length of stay is about one year.”

Youth Offenders

Hansen began Tuesday’s tour by giving a short history of the $28 million facility, which opened in 2002 to incarcerate youth ages 11 to 20 from all over the state. On Tuesday, 94 youth were imprisoned.

He characterized prisoners at the facility thus:

80 percent of the youth who have gone through the center have mental health issues.

75 percent are on psychotropic drugs.

25 percent have had a psychotic episode.

50 percent have special education needs.

25 percent have significant learning problems.

25 percent have had a head injury.

80 to 85 percent have substance abuse problems.

17 percent come from a two-person biological family.

“We have our work cut out for us,” Hansen said.

Mountain View has a number of educational programs designed to help the youth lead productive lives after they leave the facility, said Barry Stoodley, associate commissioner of the division of juvenile services for the Department of Corrections.

“Our vision is for kids to leave in a better place than when they came in,” he said.

“We believe kids can change, we believe in second chances,” Hansen said. “We believe we can make a difference in these kids’ lives.”

Open World Program

The Russian group was impressed with the facility and looked forward to going to court later this week, said facilitator Viktoriya Podolskaya, 35, who spoke English.

The Open World Program started in 1999 as an effort “to introduce the rule of law to Russia,” by giving visitors an inside look into the practices and principles in the United States, Neale Duffett, a Portland attorney and program organizer, said Monday.

Nearly 15,000 Russians have come to the U.S. through the program, he said. In addition to providing a view into the legal world, the visitors also are given a glimpse into U.S. culture.

“Last night, we were toasting marshmallows with them,” Duffett said.

After leaving Mountain View, the Russian team headed to Augusta to meet with Secretary of State Matt Dunlap, and several state judges and court officials. In addition to Burmagina, Koroleva, Proselkov, Podolskaya, the group also included Viktoria Akilova, 35, judicial assistant, and Irina Rakitina, 39, a management division chief for the Archangel Region Judicial Department.

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