LEWISTON, Maine — Sometimes, when there’s confusion among the people, nothing beats a good Q&A session.
Within the local Somali community, there is plenty of confusion where the law is concerned. What’s the difference between a misdemeanor and a felony? What does the district attorney do? When will a suspected criminal go to jail as opposed to being sent home on probation?
“We have questions that we don’t know the answers to,” Somali Bantu leader Rilwan Osman said at the first Juvenile Justice System panel discussion at B Street Community Center on Birch Street on Tuesday.
No problem. To get information about legal matters, a group of four dozen Somali youths and their parents went right to the source, firing question after question at the panel that included two police officers, a juvenile corrections officer, a pair of case management experts and a district court judge.
Almost every juvenile in the room — they were 90 percent of the crowd — wanted to know how to avoid landing in jail.
“If you commit a serious crime like robbery, burglary, aggravated assault, or if you get into the drug scene, you could be sentenced to the youth center,” 8th District Court Judge John Beliveau told the group.
The world of juvenile justice is different from the world of adult justice, Beliveau explained to them. Police, court officials and judges do all they can to keep children at home with their parents. It wasn’t always that way.
“Just a hundred years ago, you people would have been treated like adults,” the judge said.
Community Resource officers Craig Johnson and William Rousseau explained the difference between felonies, which can involve jail time of a year and up, and misdemeanors, which are punishable by less than one year.
They mostly see misdemeanors, the officers said. Locally, kids get in trouble by violating city ordinances or state laws. They stay out beyond curfew.
They scribble graffiti on walls or get caught with cigarettes. When it happens, police work closely with Juvenile Community Corrections Officer Jay Pennell to determine what happens next.
“We decide what to do with the charge,” Pennell said. “We bring in the families and ask a whole bunch of questions.”
The parents wanted to know what rights and responsibilities they have when their children will not behave. Many wondered what is involved with a juvenile’s criminal record.
“Most kids believe that when they turn 18, their record goes away,” Pennell said. “That is not true. It doesn’t go away; it just becomes protected.”
If a young adult had a juvenile record, it may come into play if they want to join the military, become a police officer or go into banking.
And speaking of becoming a cop, more than one child in the room wanted to know what it takes. That’s a common question, Lewiston Police Chief Michael Bussiere said. In the Somali community, children frequently express interest in law enforcement when asked about their career goals. His advice?
“Stay in school. Keep your nose clean. Don’t do anything you’ll regret later. Go to college if you can,” Bussiere said. “Then come and see me. If you keep your nose clean and you graduate, we’ll probably hire you.”
Also on the panel were targeted case manager Stephen Telow of Learning Works and Spurwink Trauma Systems therapy clinician Melissa Marcinuk.
Both work with juvenile offenders, parents and police to help kids avoid trouble and abide by conditions set by the courts.
The questions just kept coming. They wanted to know the difference between Class A, Class B and Class C crimes. They wondered what the FBI is all about and at what point a Somali immigrant could be deported.
Officer Johnson handled the latter question. Because the United States does not presently recognize the government of Somalia, he said, in serious federal crimes, the U.S. government might choose to detain an immigrant until conditions change and the suspect can be deported.
“On the state level, we don’t deal with deportation at all,” Johnson said.
Osman and his group have been holding justice system workshops all summer. Tuesday’s meeting marked the first time they tackled juvenile justice with a panel of experts to answer questions.
It wasn’t all grim questions with somber answers. Some of the children wondered about lighter things, such as how police officers decide when to run their lights, when to turn on their sirens and when to go quietly.
Officer Rousseau handled that one, explaining the difference between Code 1, Code 2 and Code 3 police responses. Code 3, with lights and sirens, is meant for urgent incidents, Rousseau said. Even so, a cop doesn’t fly through city alleys, overturning fruit carts and jumping up onto curbs like some of the children might have seen on television.
“We can’t just disobey all the traffic laws,” Rousseau said. “We have to be cautious with our driving. It’s a way for us to notify the public that we need to get somewhere where somebody is hurt or might be hurt.”
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