The right path | August 29, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - August 29, 2008

The right path

Deputy's commitment helps kids in trouble via community service and personal attention

by Meghan Neal

At one time, Marshall had very little respect for the police. But after completing the Valley Station Juvenile Diversion Program, run by Alamo's Deputy Elmer Glasser, his opinion changed.

"At first, you know, you resent the person who arrested you. But as time went on ... I realized that he kind of saved my life," said Marshall, who recently turned 18.

When he was arrested he faced up to a year in Juvenile Hall for drug possession for sales, and having an open container of alcohol in the car. Today, he is sober, cleared of all charges, and on a new path.

The diversion program is an opportunity for teens in trouble to wipe the slate clean.

"If you persevere you can really change your life," said Marshall. "If you don't persevere, you will change your life but for the worse.

"It gives you two decisions: You have one road to take that leads you to jail without a doubt, and you have another road to take that leaves you sober and gets you doing things for the community," he continued.

"You start to realize with time that it's not worth going back to the other road."

Alamo's diversion program has had a 100 percent success rate since it started, said Deputy Glasser proudly.

"I don't know of any other program out there that is like ours at the Valley Station," he noted.

Run out of the county Sheriff's Office, it covers Alamo and unincorporated areas of Walnut Creek, Concord, San Ramon and Danville. It's a way for teens that get in trouble with the law to make amends and learn from their mistakes.

"I explain to them that it's an opportunity for them to earn a second chance," said Glasser. "Of fixing the problem (they) created."

Youths ages 14 to 18 who commit misdemeanor crimes, and occasionally felonies, can be eligible. It's taken on a case-by-case basis. Every potential diversion case goes to Glasser, who conducts an interview with the teen and their parents to see if they're right for the program.

Teens in Danville and Alamo have the same problems as juveniles anywhere, the deputy said, though some may think this area is impervious to crime.

"They do stuff just like other kids - drugs, alcohol, vandalism, theft," he said.

Those are the most common juvenile offenses. Other examples are trespassing, ordinance violations (like setting off fireworks), getting into a fight, carrying a knife on campus, or domestic abuse such as hitting a sibling or parent.

Choosing which juveniles to accept into the program is a painstaking process, said Glasser. The teen has to meet certain requisites to qualify: The crime must be a first offense; if it was a theft or vandalism, full restitution must be paid.

Another paramount, if less tangible, requirement is the right attitude. The juvenile must be honest during the hearing and willing to admit to the crime. Honesty is the core value of the program, said the deputy.

Moreover, they have to truly want to be involved in the program.

"If they don't want to help themselves, then I don't want to waste my time on them," Glasser said.

At first, some of the teens will show resistance, he said. They may get defensive and claim, "I don't have a drug problem" or "I only drink on the weekends" or "My friend did it, I was just watching." They don't want to be caught, Glasser said. They're afraid of the consequences and of accountability.

But once he explains the program to them, they realize there's light at the end of the tunnel and they're eager to cooperate. And it's a bright light: If the program is successfully completed, there is no prosecution and their name is cleared.

"It's like they never got arrested," he said. "And that helps a lot of juveniles when they go apply for college."

It's not always easy. The diversion program generally takes one year to complete and the rules are strict. This generation of youth often expects immediate gratification, Glasser said, but with this program, you have to earn it.

The cornerstones of the diversion program are:

* Continual communication with the deputy;

* Demonstrating accountability; and

* Completing 20 to 40 hours of community service work at a local nonprofit organization.

The sheriff's office provides a list of approved nonprofit groups, such as East Bay Regional Park District, the YMCA, the American Cancer Society or the Town of Danville. Glasser helps the family pick one that's a good fit for the teen. Occasionally they'll opt for an organization not on the list, like a family church or special charity.

"I want it to spark some interest," Glasser said. In some cases the community service work will turn into a long term hobby or even a career path, he said.

Another condition of the diversion program is "phone probation." For the first six weeks the youths are required to call Glasser at an agreed upon date and time, to provide structure and cultivate responsibility.

About 250-300 youths have successfully completed the program since Glasser revamped it three years ago.

What makes Alamo's program 100 percent successful, apart from the basic bread-and-butter requirements, Glasser said, is that each participant's experience is customized based on their specific needs.

The juvenile and parents sit down with Glasser at the start of the program and outline particular goals they'd like to meet. Basically, the team establishes a game plan, a recipe for success.

"Like any recipe, there are a lot of ingredients," he said.

For example, in a drug case, the teen will usually go through a rehabilitation program; Glasser works closely with doctors and drug counselors in the community.

In a theft case, repayment is extremely important. If the restitution money originally comes from the parents, the teen should work for however long it takes to pay their parents back.

Sometimes parents will indicate they'd like their child's grades monitored. Other times communication is the focus, and they may want their son or daughter to go to counseling with them. In all cases the juvenile must write a letter of apology to their parents.

During the first two months of the program there is a lot of contact and communication. Glasser visits the teens at home and at school, and he checks in over the phone. This level of involvement also contributes to the program's success, he said.

He doesn't give up on them, even when there are bumps in the road.

"I tell the children that everyone makes mistakes. But if you're honest about it while you're in the diversion program, I'll work with you," he said. "My goal is to see the juvenile succeed and learn from their mistake."

A few times young men and women that completed the program have come up to him to thank him.

"They'll say, 'I'm going to be an engineer, a fireman,'" said Glasser.

"They don't like me much in the beginning of the program because I'm kind of the hammer. I'm the enforcer. But they learn that I'm there to help them," the deputy said. It's important to be strict, he said, because young people need boundaries.

The key is building trust, he went on. If you lie to one kid, a reputation spreads quickly that you're not trustworthy. Glasser said he tells everyone that he'll always be honest with them, and they've come to trust him.

"It goes both ways," he said. "I earn their respect, and they earn my respect."

Just recently about a dozen juveniles successfully completed the Valley Station program. And this month, a committee of law enforcement agencies contacted Glasser to talk about using the program as a blueprint for others throughout the county.

"They have hope, and people like Officer Glasser have hope, in changing people for the better and rehabilitating people," said Marshall. "To give a second chance to kids like me."

Marshall completed the program in June and is currently attending Diablo Valley College.

"It's really not too late to turn it around, for most people," he said. "Most people, you can turn it around if you put your mind to it."