In 2002, RHPD Police Chief Reynolds had an idea.
That idea was to create a first time offender’s program for local youth that would not only alleviate law enforcement and court officers from being tied up with minor juvenile offenses, but also to help kids realize the cause and effect of their actions.
After colliding with the same thought process in a conversation with Tara Jennings of Bryan County Family Connection, the Bryan County Juvenile Diversion Program was born.
Reynolds, today the chairman of BCFC, said the program has exceeded his initial expectations and has done and continues to do exactly what he, Jennings, and their collaborative partners initially envisioned.
"As a police chief, I can tell you that the program saves the city a lot of time and money," said Reynolds. "Most of the cases diverted to the program, we don’t see again. On top of that, it gives kids a second chance."
Other agencies jumped on board in 2002 when they noticed that the county’s sole juvenile probation officer was single-handedly overseeing over 300 cases, Jennings said. While most of the juvenile cases were for minor offenses, police said they are seeing more young people committing more serious offenses after showing up in court.
The problem of young offenders graduating to more serious offenses was a huge factor guiding local law enforcement officials and Jennings to create a diversion program in partnership with the Department of Juvenile Justice. To date, Bryan County Juvenile Diversion Case Manager Wendy Sims says, the program has cut juvenile offenders returning to court by 75 percent with only 8 percent of program participants becoming repeat offenders.
"It gives kids another avenue and opportunity when they have issues," said Pembroke Police Chief and former BCFC Chairman Bill Collins. "It’s an elective program, so, if they choose, they can just be thrown back into the legal system."Collins commended Sims for handling the cases well. "I don’t know of anyone who can do any better and that truly cares about these kids," he said. "And makes it better for the kids and helps make this program such a success."
"It was a fear of mine before going into this on whether or not we could make a difference," said Jennings. "The numbers prove that, yes, it does make a difference. 90 percent of kids have opted for the right path and have made it a very positive program."
Sims said the program begins when Department of Juvenile Justice sees where the program would benefit the offender.
She noted that "9 out of 10 first time offenders come to me" and listed some of the common offenses: traffic violations, shoplifting, misdemeanor drug offenses, fighting at school and unruly at home.
From there, Sims arranges a series of 12 counseling sessions with the offender and their parents either at the Richmond Hill Library or the Bryan County Sheriff’s Department in Pembroke. The sessions are concluded by the offender writing a 5-page paper reflecting on their charges and on what they have learned by participating in the program.
Reynolds said that, when the program started, there was only one other county in Georgia that had a program that was remotely similar to this one. Several others have sprung up since.
"When a young offender completes the program, it keeps the offense off of their permanent record which is a huge benefit," said Reynolds. "In addition, we’re able to identify other issues and work through them via counseling."
In 2005, the program received the award for Early Intervention Programs, deemed by Georgia Trend magazine and the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia, giving Bryan County the top spot in that area. The program was also featured the following year in a GPTV television special.