Holding documents that could have affected their lives in varying ways, three students from Mission gladly shredded the records that had previously been hanging over them.
Last Thursday, Mission’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention Advisory Board held a graduation for three first time offenders who successfully passed the First Time Offender Program in order to clear their records and start fresh. The graduation took place during a special meeting held at Mission City Hall.
The three youths will remain unnamed and not be described, as per the request of the board and the chief of police, in order to truly expunge their records and leave no trace of what they had done.
Prior to the graduation, a presentation was given by 449th District Court Judge Renee Betancourt. She detailed the process of dealing with the juveniles that are brought into her courtroom, as well as her experiences as a judge.
“When I first got on the bench, you have this idea that ‘I’m going to save everybody,’ but unfortunately that’s not the case,” Betancourt said. “You can’t save everyone, but you can try.”
Betancourt, who has been actively involved in juvenile justice issues, says she and her department do extensive work in an effort to get treatment for kids who need the help.
“Anything we can help with, we will. Unfortunately, sometimes the situation happens where we do have to get them arrested or detained,” Betancourt said. “And sometimes that’s just help. I’m not there to punish, or to ruin their life, I’m there to help them, and I’m there to give them a second opportunity. I do believe in second chances, and I’ve seen we have had some great success stories.”
Betancourt said that the programs being set up all over Hidalgo County are making great strides forward, but a lack of girls programs mean a lack of help for juvenile girls who may also benefit.
“I have a lot of placements for the boys,” Betancourt said. “I can send them to boot camp, I can send them here, Duval County, but my girls, I lack a lot of services for them. Usually when I do talk to community leaders, if you know of any service, anything you know that will service children as far as mental health, drug rehabilitation, anything like that, I’m welcome to their services. I’m in hopes that one day we do build a facility for our females in Hidalgo County.”
The First Time Offender Program serves boys and girls who qualify. Chief Robert Dominguez spoke during the graduation.
“We do have second chances here in Mission,” Dominguez said. “And one of the things that I wanted to talk to these young kids about today, and their parents, is the fact that there’s people that care.”
The three who completed the program were in attendance with their parents. Dominguez said they he hopes the lessons learned will be carried with the graduates.
“Hopefully this is the first and last time that we’ll see you,” Dominguez said. “And this is what the program is all about. I want you to realize that our mayor and our city council, Dr. Armando O’Caña here, the board that you see here today, Judge Betancourt and all the judges for the county of Hidalgo were all instrumental in making this First Time Offender Program a reality here in the City of Mission. Please take what you learn and move forward with it.”
The First Time Offender Program is new to the Mission, and started in October 2017 with 13 kids. The three who graduated on Feb. 15 are the first to complete the program. Nora Lozano, the head of the program, explained.
“I already was working under a different grant for the past three years for juveniles that commit minor offenses, like Class C misdemeanors,” Lozano said. “Basically we’re doing the same thing now, except now we’re going with harder crimes I guess you could say, like these are the ones that will actually be on your record. The Class Bs, Class As and state felonies that are in the group of ages 10 to 16 are the kids we are working with.”
Lozano said that they have to meet the criteria set for the program, like first-time offences only, they can’t have committed a crime in any other city or county, or have any other pending cases to qualify. The parent and child have to agree, and the parent has to attend classes with the child in order for the program to work.
“They attend 2 hour classes for six week, once a week, two hours,” Lozano said. “And then they start their 90-day probationary period. On their 90th day I make sure they haven’t picked up any new cases and follow up. We always make sure they’re attending school regularly and they haven’t re-offended, and if they meet all the criteria, they get to graduate.”
This was the first ceremony and first set of graduates for the City of Mission. One by one they got up and shredded their records, wiping the slate clean, ready to walk out of the City Hall with a new beginning.