MONTPELIER (AP) -- When Kyle LeClaire was pulled over last year and accused of cruising through a stop sign, police found about half an ounce of marijuana in a backpack in the car. He denied missing the stop sign but admitted owning the pot. The then-17-year-old Burlington high school student, who was being treated for anxiety, had a new worry: going to jail.
But instead, LeClaire was put in a pilot program designed to keep nonviolent, often repeat offenders out of court and, ultimately, out of prison by addressing underlying substance abuse or mental health issues. He was never charged and was told to continue counseling for his anxiety.
"We’re doing a better job not necessarily charging them for the sake of charging them but rather addressing that root cause in the community in order to prevent future crimes," said Chittenden County State’s Attorney T.J. Donovan, who developed the program, known as the Rapid Intervention Community Court, which is funded by a $114,000 yearly Department of Corrections grant. It’s based on a New York City program, the Red Hook Community Justice Center.
Though RICC serves all ages, it’s been especially effective for younger people. This and other similar programs as well as the addition of youth probation officers have contributed to cut nearly in half the number of people under the age of 18 to 21 in Vermont’s prisons, from 2073 in 2000 to 938 in 2012, said Vermont Corrections Commissioner Andy Pallito.
The key is to quickly get offenders into the program. They’re referred soon after the offense without being charged.
Especially for younger kids, it’s proven that the faster someone is enrolled, the more impact the program will have, said Emmet Helrich, a former Burlington police lieutenant who is coordinator of RICC.
"When you’re young and you get something three months down the road, it might as well be forever. There’s no immediate consequence," he said.
Helrich assesses each person, and if there’s an underlying substance abuse issue, he sends them to clinicians at the HowardCenter, a nonprofit agency in the same building, which provides mental health and substance abuse treatment services.
Depending on the offense, they may be required to attend a class about retail theft or the effects of marijuana. They may also go before members of the community to learn how their crime affects the community and to make amends.
It’s an appropriate tactic, said Michael Keefe, a University of Vermont student from Brattleboro who is going through the program.
Keefe and his roommates were cited in October for providing alcohol to minors at a party at his apartment. Police showed up at the party because of noise complaints, a frequent problem in the college town where students live alongside residents.
He met with the community members to talk about how they were at fault and the noise issue.
"It’s good to see their side of it," he said, adding that the board was interested in hearing his perspective as well. He also expects to write apologies to or meet with the neighbors. Plus, the program has benefits for him and his roommates.
"It wouldn’t have been very good for us to be graduating from college and have a criminal charge on our records," he said.
Since the program was launched in September 2010, 470 people had successfully finished it, according to a study soon to be released by the Vermont Center for Justice Research. Only 7 percent of those were later convicted of a crime, compared with 23 percent of those who failed to finish the program, the report said.
Nearly 93 percent of people who completed the program were conviction-free after one year.
That’s also far lower than Vermont’s rate of recidivism, which covers a longer period of three years, which was 48 percent in 2008, the most recent numbers available. The results are promising, Donovan said, and an acknowledgment that previous punishment methods didn’t necessarily work.
"Our jails are full, so I’m suggesting let’s try new approaches. It may work, it may not work," said Donovan, who as a prosecutor has seen the same people over and over for the same offenses.
So, he added, "we’re willing to try. That’s all we’re doing."
Their approach is being studying by the Center for Court Innovation, in collaboration with the RAND Corporation and the Association of Prosecuting Attorneys, which has won a National Institute of Justice grant to look at 11 prosecutor-led pretrial diversion programs nationwide.
LeClaire said the program worked for him. He’s working full time as a waiter, learning how to do Web design and hoping to resume college in the fall.
"I want to do good things in my life and I really didn’t want to go to a jail and screw it all up," he said.