Rockland judge disappointed program aimed at rehabilitating juvenile offenders may end

Maine District Court Judge Michael Westcott talks in his office at the Rockland Courthouse.
Maine District Court Judge Michael Westcott talks in his office at the Rockland Courthouse.
Posted March 14, 2012, at 2:37 p.m.
Last modified March 15, 2012, at 6:18 p.m.

ROCKLAND, Maine — Judge Michael Westcott said he went into law — as many people did in the 1960s — with high ideals.

“In those days we were going to save the world,” Westcott said.

As he winds down his 45-plus-year legal career, the judge said he is disappointed that court administrators have halted a program he has supported aimed at helping young people in the court system.

A spokesperson for court administrators countered that the program only has been discontinued pending further review, but as Westcott prepared this week for his last day on the bench Friday, he questioned whether it would be reinstated.

For the past four years in the District Court in Rockland, Judges Westcott and Joseph Field have run the Wednesday Afternoon Club. Field also operated the program for many years longer in the West Bath District Court.

The program is a problem-solving court, Westcott said, similar to drug courts.

“Basically it targets kids that are in need of more supervision than they can get through pretrial release or juvenile probation,” Westcott said.

In addition to the youths, parents, juvenile correction officers, assistant district attorneys, defense attorneys and counselors attend the sessions that are held twice a month on Wednesday afternoons after school. In West Bath an educator also attends.

“What you are doing is assessing how the kid is doing. You are able to act quickly,” Westcott said.

Under the previous system, filing paperwork and scheduling hearings for juveniles could take a long time. He maintained that kids need things to happen quickly for the goal to be reached.

The young people helped by the Wednesday Afternoon Club have been accused of juvenile offenses. Westcott said they often have problems at school or at home, sometimes with mild mental health problems.

“We’re not talking about Jack the Rippers,” he said.

When both Westcott and Field announced their retirements last year, Westcott said the court administration decided to end the Wednesday Afternoon Club.

Upon hearing that the program would end, Judge Westcott sent out a questionnaire asking the participants their opinions on how it has worked.

“Frankly, I was amazed because they came back essentially saying that it is a terrific program that we shouldn’t lose,” he said.

The cost of the program is minimal, he noted, taking just a few hours a month for the judges. No additional staff is needed, he said. Westcott said when the judicial department said it likely would not keep the program, it asked him to have the program analyzed for its effectiveness.

Westcott contacted the University of Maine School of Law in Portland and Muskie School of Public Service. He said they agreed not only to assess the program but also to come up with recommendations on how to improve it.

“Mentoring has been shown to be an extremely efficient type of intervention with kids,” Westcott said.

He said two interns from the law school were going to work on assessing the program at no cost to the state. And the new judges who are being assigned to the Rockland and West Bath courts had agreed to continue the Wednesday Afternoon Club.

Westcott said he was excited by the possibilities, but about a month ago he was notified by the court administration that the program would end. He said he was disappointed with the court administration’s action. He said courts in Portland and Farmington had wanted to start similar programs but were prevented. He said one concern raised by the court administration was the lack of uniform policies among the courts. Westcott said, however, such issues would have been addressed by the review to be done by USM.

“I assume it’s probably the old saw that we have so much to do. But that forgets the priority that juveniles and children are given in our system. This seems to go totally counter. Is [making juveniles a priority] just a slogan that we have?” Westcott said.

Mary Ann Lynch, the government and media counsel for the Administrative Office of the Courts, said Wednesday that there appears to have been a misunderstanding. She said the Wednesday Afternoon Clubs have not been discontinued permanently. She said the court wants to determine the best approach for dealing with youths before deciding what program to administer.

She said she did not know how long it would take to make that decision.

But Judge Westcott stood by his position Wednesday evening, maintaining that the program clearly has been halted and expressing concerns about whether it would be reinstated.

Recalling how well the program has worked, Westcott said that during his Wednesday afternoon sessions, he has seen as few as four juveniles and as many as 20, but most often the numbers are in the low teens. This gave him time to try to relate to the kids and see what was going on in their lives. He said he has heard back from parents and kids who say the program was great.

“I had one young lady who remembered how because of this court she was placed in a different family situation and is doing quite well,” he said, adding that the meetings don’t always work, but if they can change some lives they are worth it.

Westcott was raised in Philadelphia. He worked one summer at Camp Kieve in Nobleboro and knew he wanted to move to Maine. After graduating from Temple University in Philadelphia he moved to Maine and began to practice law in Belfast.

He spent one year in Belfast before moving to Damariscotta, where he had a practice for 14 years. He then joined the Maine Attorney General’s Office, where his responsibilities included public utilities and consumer fraud cases. He then took on homicide cases, including two high-profile murder trials in Knox County. In one case, he obtained the conviction in 1998 of Edmund Winslow for the 1987 murder of his former wife in Rockland. In the other trial, he obtained convictions in 1989 against Joseph Bowman, then 28, of Washington and Gerald Rolerson, then 31, of Appleton for the murder of a friend from Washington whom they suspected of being a drug informant.

Despite some of the more graphic cases, a less serious one stays in his mind. He recalled finding a Camden woman who was in her 70s in contempt of court for refusing to pay a fine for having an unlicensed dog. He lowered the fine to the point that the woman had enough money to pay, but she still refused, so he ordered her jailed for contempt.

He said the woman was taken to the jail and strip-searched.

“I was horrified when I found that out. If I had known I would not have ordered her to pay the fine,” Westcott said.

In 1989, Westcott was appointed as a District Court judge and has served in that capacity for the past 22 years. Several of those years he served as chief judge of the District Court, taking pride in the efforts of court personnel to have the courts operate more efficiently and better serve residents.

As for what he will do now, Westcott said he will visit family and then spend a quiet summer on a Maine island.

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