December 3, 2010
By Patrick H. Donges
The Saratogian

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Without an infusion of funds from public or private donors, Youth Court, the countywide, peer-run prevention program focused on first-time teen offenders, will end Jan. 1.

The program serves about 300 young people throughout the county each year, including 120 first-time school-age criminal offenders facing charges such as petit larceny, trespass, vandalism and possession of marijuana.

About 175 teenagers receive law education training to serve as officers of the court and contribute approximately 5,000 hours of community service through their work.

“It’s too good of a program to go to waste,” said Tyler O’Dell, a 17-year-old Saratoga Springs High School student who came to the court as an offender, and is now a member of the leadership team.

O’Dell received notification that training sessions that had been scheduled this week had been cancelled because the program would likely not be renewed in 2011.

In 2008 he was tried for petit larceny — stealing food from the school cafeteria — and was sentenced in part to tour the maximum security Great Meadow Correctional Facility in Comstock, which he said was very effective.

“I’ve talked to so many people who have said this was the best thing that ever happened to them,” he said of other students who have come through the court.

“We have referred hundreds of cases to youth court,” Saratoga County District Attorney James A. Murphy III said, calling the program’s cancellation “incredibly disappointing” and a “serious loss.”

“These are all the type of things kids remember years later,” he said of the kinds of sentencing, which include speaking to peers about their offense, or situational community service such as repairing a vandalized mailbox.

Offenders are also required to serve on a jury in an upcoming case as a part of their sentencing.

“There’s nothing left,” Saratoga Prevention Council Executive Director Heather Kisselback said of funding for the program.

The $91,000 annual cost of the program had been funded in large part through municipal and state contributions — about $21,000 from local governments and a $40,000 member item secured by former New York Senate Majority Leader Joseph Bruno — but those sources have dried up, leaving the council without another full year of funding.

“It just has a completely different impact than it would if they went through any other route,” Kisselback said of the program, adding that it allows students to be addressed by their peers on issues from theft to substance abuse and addiction.

She said the program not only cut recidivism rates, but also decreased out-of-home placements.

“There are so many benefits,” said full-time program director Lisa Chamberlain, who will lose the position she has held for almost 11 years if the program is discontinued.

“The money that we’ve raised is nothing that’s going to keep this program going,” she said of fundraising efforts in recent months that included students standing outside local stores soliciting donations.

“We need somebody to step up and contribute an amount that’s going to be substantive,” she said.

Tyler O’Dell has a famous somebody in mind: he has written a letter to television star Duane Lee “Dog” Chapman, star of A&E’s “Dog the Bounty Hunter,” after hearing him say he wants to help viewers in need.

“He’s my hero,” O’Dell said, recognizing that the request was a long shot.

There is also a $40,000 appropriation secured earlier this year by outgoing Rep. Scott Murphy that would keep the program going at least through the end of the month. Kisselback said that the grant, which is currently tied up in the lame-duck congressional session, would be a “miracle.”

“That has been put on hold, and we don’t even know if that’s something that is going to or could happen,” Chamberlain said of the funding that would save her job.

“It’s not a Republican or Democratic issue,” Murphy said. “It’s a community criminal justice issue.”