Face-to-Face With the Consequences : Reconciliation: The program gives victims a chance to confront the young offenders who committed crimes against them.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Cheryl Mattley ushered the two boys to the shed they had set ablaze behind her Ventura thrift shop two months earlier and pointedly told them that she was angry.

"They caused $6,000 damage," said Mattley, manager of the San Buenaventura Thrift Shop on Main Street. "The shed was full of antiques and Christmas decorations. Everything was lost. Because of their actions, we were not able to give one family a Christmas tree last year."

The boys looked sad, she recalled, and said they wanted to make up for what they had done. "They were given a sense of responsibility," she said. "They couldn't just walk away from it."

Mattley said she felt a little better after the meeting, arranged through the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program of Ventura County, which over the last two years has given more than 100 victims of less serious crimes a chance to meet juvenile offenders face-to-face.

"We're trying to make the juveniles realize that there is a cause and effect to their actions," said Berta D. Steele, executive director of the nonprofit program.

In addition, Steele said, the program allows victims to participate in the judicial process.

"They have a direct say in what the restitution should be," Steele said. Sometimes the matter can be resolved with anything from a handshake to community service--it's up to the victim to decide, Steele said.

"When you're a victim, you feel out of control; something has been done against you," Steele said. "The meetings allow the victims to ask, 'What are you going to do to make things right?' The victims have control again."

Steele said the Ventura County Probation Department refers the juveniles to her office, and she contacts the victims and offenders to arrange a voluntary meeting.

Occasionally, a victim or an offender will refuse, and the probation department will set the restitution. But usually both sides get together, Steele said.

Offenders often "look the victims in the eye and say they're sorry," Steele said.

Restitution usually includes community service and financial reimbursement, although it can vary according to the situation, Steele said.

In Mattley's case, for example, both boys agreed to work in her thrift shop to make up for the damage.

One boy has been working regularly every Saturday, but the other failed to show up, Mattley said. As a result, the name of the boy who broke the agreement will be given to the probation department, which will set an alternate punishment.

Steele said the reconciliation program excludes more serious crimes, such as sexual assault and homicide, because the volunteer mediators do not have the training to deal with hardened criminals.

But, she said, some counties in Eastern states have programs that have successfully arranged meetings between inmates convicted of manslaughter and victims' families.

The conferences, Steele said, are an important part of the healing process. "It gives them a chance to ask why," Steele said of the families of those victimized by serious crimes.

Recently, Orange County started a program similar to the one in Ventura County. And Fresno County has been running a similar program for seven years. According to Fresno officials, the program handles more than 500 cases a year.

Tom Higgins, president of the Ventura County organization, said the program has proved more successful with young offenders because they have not established the patterns of hardened criminals.

"It's easier to rehabilitate them when they are young," Higgins said. "And it teaches them responsibility and compassion."

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