MARION COUNTY — Many people convicted of a crime dream of shredding their criminal record. For Julian, that dream has become a reality.
Julian is a 15-year-old who was under the care of Oregon Youth Authority until March 6, when he graduated from a highly-structured program offered by Marion County Juvenile Court that allowed him to shred his criminal record.
“It feels great,” he said after the ceremony in which he also celebrated 199 days of sobriety.
The path to that day wasn’t easy. STAR Court (Supervised Treatment and Recovery) is a juvenile drug rehabilitation program with rigorous accountability requirements, such as regular court visits, weekly meetings with a drug and alcohol counselor, and daily calls to the STAR Court hotline to see which youth have been randomly selected for urinalysis. Julian said he probably had two or three UAs a week. And if one is missed, it’s considered dirty, he said.
“It’s a tough program, especially coming back and calling every day,” said Funaki Letisi, an OYA juvenile parole and probation officer who works with STAR Court. “Just that (calling) in itself is hard for kids because kids are not used to that accountability.”
Julian’s transformation has been particularly inspiring, considering that his mother died unexpectedly last June, one week before he was scheduled to leave his residential program to live with her.
“This kid’s dealt with a ton of trauma and loss in his life and he’s risen above it,” said Mark Plaza, Julian’s OYA probation officer. “He’s done well living in a new environment. His grades are good. This kid has done amazingly well for the situation he’s in.”
As part of a service learning project that also included helping lead drug and alcohol counseling groups, Julian made a video depicting his journey. The video included a heartfelt message to his mother.
“Dear Mom, I want to take the time to say sorry for not trying my hardest,” Julian said in his video, filmed in downtown Salem. “I just wanted to use and do whatever I wanted to do. I never even thought of what it would do to you and to myself. Now that you’re gone, I’m sorry. … I hope that you know I love and miss you.”
Julian now lives with his grandfather, Sergio, who attended the STAR Court graduation.
“I can tell you, we wouldn’t be here without Sergio,” Plaza told the courtroom at Julian’s graduation. “(He’s been) holding him accountable but loving him the whole way.”
But Julian has held himself accountable as well. When asked how he dealt with peer pressure, he said simply, “I built skills to get past that.”
He offers a different form of peer pressure that Judge Cheryl Pellegrini finds a breath of fresh air.
Role Model for Others
“I know a number of other people who are in (STAR Court), they look up to you,” she told Julian from the bench at his graduation. “I just want to tell you how much I appreciate the effect you’ve had on the rest of the people in the program, because I think you bring the whole thing up.”
The judge presented Julian with a certificate of completion and a copy of the Dr. Seuss book, Oh the Places You’ll Go, with the inside flap signed by the STAR Court staff. Then he was given his criminal record to destroy. He relished the moments when he got to put it through the paper shredder.
“He’s not perfect, we’ve had a couple hiccups, but there’s not too many 15-year-olds I look up to, and Julian is one of them,” Plaza said. “The way he’s dealt with everything that’s been thrown at him, he’s a very mature young man, and I am really excited and looking forward to see where he ends up three or four years from now.”
While Julian hoped the expungement of his record would mean he could start driving, he’ll still have to wait a few years, with traffic-related offenses on his record that are considered separate from criminal offenses. Still, he’s excited about his future.
“This opens up a lot of things for me,” he said. “I want a clean slate. I want to show I’m just a normal teenager working my way up.”
Julian is the second OYA youth to graduate from STAR Court. Right now, five OYA youth are enrolled in the Marion County program. The opportunity was extended to OYA about five years ago, when then-juvenile court Judge Lindsay Partridge wanted to better serve youth who had to quit STAR Court because of being committed to OYA.
“Generally that commitment to OYA would suggest they were not successful on probation,” Partridge said in an earlier interview with OYA. “But we decided to take a longer and broader view of it. Maybe they weren’t successful on juvenile court probation because we hadn’t matched them up with the right services and skills to help them be successful.”
Innovating the Court Process
Now, Lane County has also opened its juvenile drug court program to OYA youth. Starting in February, RAP Court, short for Recovery and Progress, accepted two OYA youth, thanks to the efforts of Lani Thomas, an OYA juvenile parole and probation officer who had worked with RAP Court before joining OYA in early 2018.
“Well over a year ago, a defense attorney requested that one of my youth not be terminated from the program when he was committed to OYA,” Thomas said. “Our judge at the time said no, but he thought the idea of using RAP Court as a re-entry option for OYA youth was intriguing.”
When she heard Marion County offered the program to youth, Thomas brought stakeholders together to discuss opening RAP Court to OYA youth in Lane County as well.
Thomas’s passion for the juvenile drug court program echoes the sentiment of the other staff involved in STAR Court.
“OYA youth are in need of a lot of support when they transition back into their home communities,” Thomas said. “My hope is that our OYA youth in recovery receive the support they need from the program to not only complete their parole or probation expectations, but to move on to live crime-free lives.”