The York County Juvenile Probation Department wants citizens to be the judges, seeking volunteers to hear juvenile cases and help the youth avoid permanent criminal records.

Under the Youth Aid Panel program, children facing summary and misdemeanor charges are diverted from the formal criminal justice system and sent to a court-sanctioned group of community members for sentencing.

Police officers refer the children to the panels, typically selecting low-level, first-time offenders, said Connie Briscoe, Youth Aid Panel Coordinator.

Typical offenses include graffiti, some low-level drug use, disorderly conduct, harassment (including that on Facebook or Twitter), underage drinking and fights in school, she said.

There are currently 19 panels, arranged by school district.

"That's the beauty in this program," Briscoe said. "If a juvenile lives in Dallastown and sees a member of the community (on the panel), they're embarrassed by the crime because they know that person. Most of the kids are good kids, but they just make some bad choices."

Discipline: Panels range from two to five members each, she said. A panel would ideally have at least three or four members, but some members have been lost as people move and "life happens," Briscoe said.

The panels interview the children and their families, using the information gathered to decide on an appropriate penalty.

Like courts, the panels can assign tasks including community service, restitution, letters of apology and drug and alcohol screenings.

"They may end up paying to have (graffiti) cleaned," Briscoe said. "They might have to write an essay, make a poster, do community service. If a child likes to draw, we might have them make a comic strip based on the incident and see how the outcome could have been different."

Fresh start: Juveniles who complete the program have their record expunged, and the county saves money on court costs, Briscoe said.

More than 800 children have successfully completed the program over the past three years, performing more than 10,000 hours of community service, she said. The program started in 1997.

Volunteers can be from any background and profession but must be 18 years of age or older, have no criminal record and successfully pass Pennsylvania child abuse and FBI clearances.

Members must attend two training sessions. The panels meet once per month in the evenings. To volunteer or for more information, call Lori Petraco at 771-9567, ext. 306 or Connie Briscoe at ext. 303.