Youth diversion architect Bill Gale retires at a time of change for Berkshire Juvenile Court
PITTSFIELD — Back when she was a teenager, Collette Davis landed in juvenile court in the wake of an after-school fight.
Rather than go through the court system, however, she was ordered to participate in "Shakespeare in the Courts," a program run by the Berkshire Juvenile Court Probation Department.
Initially, she wanted nothing to do with it, but by the time she finished the program, she enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again.
"My sisters did it with me and they weren't even in trouble," she said.
Davis, now 30, says to this day she is thankful for the ongoing encouragement of the department.
"They're very supportive. They made sure I kept myself going to school. They're very caring and involved," she said in a recent phone interview. "Even though I got in trouble, I was still a really good kid."
That program, and others like it, are the legacy of William Gale, who for two decades worked to ensure that minors who reach the juvenile court system have a chance at a positive experience that may set them on a new path.
Gale, 59, who retired as Berkshire County's chief probation officer of the Juvenile Court on May 31, has looked toward innovative programming, like theater partnerships or college mentoring collaborations, in lieu of sanctions for kids who got in trouble with the law or at home.
Now that he's left his post, he's hoping that the programs he worked to organize will have a long-standing future in the county.
"One of the things we pride ourselves in, although we're very aware of public safety, we also know that we have to have these kids leave us better than when they came in," he said. "These positive youth development programs are just that. They bring that to another level."
Gale started his career in the court system in 1993, as a probation officer in Worcester. Two years later, he was transferred to the Central Berkshire District Court, where he oversaw the juvenile cases, and when the Berkshire Juvenile Court opened in 1997, he was named chief.
From the very beginning of the court, probation officers, clerks and judges have shared the mindset that young people, especially nonviolent first-time offenders, should have the opportunity to redeem themselves, and learn, before building a criminal record or being sentenced to juvenile detention centers.
Early on, this was achieved by requiring the minors, who had been charged with delinquent offenses, to write reflection letters or letters to victims, work toward paying restitution if there were damages, and participate in public service projects in the community.
"It was very quickly after that when we realized that it's not about community service, or having those kids out in public picking up trash," Gale said. "We all sat down and said, 'We can do better than that, let's talk about some options.'"
From that conversation, in collaboration with Berkshire Juvenile Court Judge Paul Perachi and Shakespeare & Company education director Kevin G. Coleman in 2001, "Shakespeare in the Courts" was born.
Now, during the six-week program, which has won multiple awards — including from the White House — and has been replicated around the world, juveniles are trained by theater educators on how to perform Shakespeare.
On a recent Wednesday, a group of young actors, under the direction of Probation Officer Angela McLaughlin and program director Jennie Jadow, performed at the Lenox theater in front of a standing-room-only audience of family, friends and officials from the legal community.
"And let me tell you, it is one of the most unbelievable things you've ever seen," Gale said of the biannual performances. "I mean some of these kids are having trouble in school, some of these kids are not in school, some of these kids are introverted and not really able to relate to their peers. After this, I don't know what the magic is "
In addition to learning lines, some in French, they also have the opportunity to learn stage combat for sword fights. At a dress rehearsal days before the show, McLaughlin, Gale and Shakespeare & Company educators looked on as the teenagers glided through St. Stephen's Church running lines and clinking swords together.
The program has shown to build confidence in the juveniles, teach them accountability, keep them off the streets after school and give them a sense of pride.
As members of the community started seeing the success of the grant-funded Shakespeare program, other groups stepped up to develop similar "alternative sanctions."
Barrington Stage Company has its own theater program, working with the juveniles to write their own plays. Some participate at a program offered through The Clark Art Institute and learn about self-expression through art. Students at Williams College can sign up to be mentors for the youth, and earn college credit for doing so.
"Sometimes it's necessary to confine a juvenile, but for most of the youth that come before us, these rehabilitative programs have been essential to get through a rough period of their lives and come out on the other side," said Juvenile Court Judge Joan M. McMenemy. "I've been a very lucky judge because we have these alternative sentencing programs."
Young people can come to the Juvenile Probation Department through a delinquency complaint filed by a police officer or through a civil "Child Requiring Assistance" case, in which guardians of schools request that the court intervene with a child who might be displaying signs of heading down a bad path in life.
Unlike in other counties, where probation officers aren't assigned to juveniles until a judge hands a sentence down, the six Berkshire County probation officers are assigned to the young people as soon as a case arrives at the office, Gale said.
"In our mind we don't stigmatize these kids by doing that. What we do is attach them to somebody almost like a mentor," Gale said. "Someone who will work with the schools, work with the parents, work with the agencies, to make sure these kids are moving in the right direction."
"We do a ton of troubleshooting," added James Hunt, assistant chief probation officer for the court.
Politicians and advocates nationwide have been calling for reform to the juvenile justice system. In Massachusetts, district attorney's offices have implemented juvenile diversion programs keeping many delinquency cases out of court completely, by having them participate in rehabilitative programming.
While Berkshire County has offered an array of programming and services through the probation department, including a clinician assigned to the court, it was the last district in the state without a formalized program through the DA's office. District Attorney Andrea Harrington is in the process of forming a diversion program though her office.
Gale and Hunt were worried that rhetoric around the lack of a formal diversion program in the county was misleading the public about the treatment of juvenile offenders thus far.
Not every child who walks into the courthouse walks out with a record, they said.
It has been a long-standing practice of the clerk to hold cases at the show-cause level, keeping a high percentage of those charged with delinquent offenses from being arraigned.
"We had diversion in the sense that the clerk used to divert all types of cases, and she still does. They come into our courthouse, but they're not arraigned," Gale said. "First-time offenders, people who make bad decisions, why not give them a shot? Why not give them a break? What's the worst that can happen?"
But in the creation of the diversion program hosted by the District Attorney's Office, Gale and Hunt hope that supervision of juveniles won't be taken away from the probation department.
"They'll never be assigned a probation officer working with the schools, the agencies," Gale said of the juveniles participating in the diversion program. "As far as we're concerned, probation cannot go out and get these kids; they have to come to us. That is our job; it's our expertise to work with these kids and their families.
"Am I concerned about the way the new program has been described to me? I am very concerned," he added. "I'm happy they're looking to continue to give first-time offenders the opportunity not to have a record; we've done it, too. I'm happy that they're going to work collaboratively, so far, with our programs. I'm concerned with the lack of supervision that they won't have that we have."
Harrington, who recently hired Jeanna Tinney to oversee diversion through her office, said she intends to work with probation department staff to use the programs already in place as a part of the diversion effort.
Over the last month, Harrington and Tinney have met with the juvenile probation department and leaders of participating organizations to see how they can keep the work going.
"What we have done is open our programs up to the DA's office to use as diversion," Gale said. "They know the importance of having a probation officer assigned to the program."
"We really want to send our congratulations to Bill on his retirement and thank him for his amazing work he has done in the juvenile court," Harrington said. "What we would like to see are more young people being able to take part in the programs that Bill Gale has been instrumental in developing."
During conversations with probation staff, Harrington said she realized her office won't have the capacity to run the programming already in place and she's hoping that it can be run as a joint effort.
The diversion program is still being formally developed, but a soft opening has begun and several clients were able to participate in the Shakespeare in the Courts program this term.
The goal is to keep all juveniles out of the court, by fitting them into alternative rehabilitative programs, so they don't garner records. Harrington acknowledged, however, some young people — those who commit violent offenses — will likely still be arraigned and not be suitable for diversion.
McMenemy, who has been a judge since 2010, said that there are many young people who would benefit from diversion, but some who should still have probation supervision.
"I do support diversion. Youth across the commonwealth should have the same access to a diversion program," she said. "It's obviously appropriate in many cases, but there are some cases where the risk to the public is too great. I'm hopeful that the DA's office will still refer those to the court."
Success in the system
After Davis graduated the program, then-First Lady Barbara Bush invited her — and juvenile court staff — to the White House to present them with an award. Davis still has it.
"They paid for me to stay in the Madison Hotel," she recalled. "They believed in me. They never gave up on me. It made me become a better person."
McMenemy said she's personally seen the benefit of the programs on the young people who have come before her.
"This is about the children. This is about rehabilitation. It makes our community healthy," she said of the programming. "When I see them in court, I don't see them smile, I don't see them laugh I don't see them joking."
At graduation ceremonies, though, she sees the young people shine, she said.
"From where I sit, I have to say that Bill Gale is really one of the finest probation chiefs in the state," McMenemny said. "We're really going to miss him when he retires."
Gale, who intends in his retirement to spend more time with wife, adult children and "grand-dog-ters," is proud of his career and the work being done in the juvenile court.
"I can't be any luckier as a chief. I have awesome probation officers," he said during his last week on the job. "I think I have the best probation officers in the juvenile court. They're the most compassionate, empathetic, they are extremely smart and creative. We know what we can do if we're involved."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977
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