Weslaco moving forward with first offender program for minors

WESLACO — The city and school district began working together this year to create a first offender program for juveniles charged with non-violent crimes.

The Weslaco City Commission on Tuesday approved an interlocal agreement with the Weslaco Independent School District to split the cost of hiring a case manager to oversee cases of children under 17 years old, charged with non-violent misdemeanors.

Though program policy has not been drafted, it will likely mimic first offender programs in Mission, Pharr, Edinburg and La Joya ISD. Children under 17, charged with misdemeanor crimes, and their parents go through weeks-long courses as part of the first offender programs.

The charges are then cleared from their names upon completing the program. This allows children to move on from their “error in judgment,” which could have implications into adulthood, according to Weslaco police Chief Joel Rivera.

The program, though, is offered solely to juveniles accused of “non-violent” misdemeanors, such as possession of marijuana, graffiti or theft of property valued up to $2,500. Students involved in school fights or threats would not be offered the opportunity to clear their names outside of the courtroom.

Discussions about launching a first offender program began shortly after the city hired Rivera in March. State District Judge Renee Rodriguez-Betancourt, who oversees the county’s sole juvenile court, suggested Rivera begin the program.

The “state feels that there needs to be rehabilitation instead of incarceration” for children accused of committing non-violent crimes, she said. First offender programs also help alleviate the caseload in juvenile court by allowing Rodriguez-Betancourt to focus on felony cases.

The need for one in Weslaco became more apparent when an otherwise exemplary student was arrested by police and charged for making a “poor choice,” according to Rivera, who did not detail the circumstances surrounding the misdemeanor charge.

Rivera took the first offender program proposal to Weslaco ISD Superintendent Priscilla Canales. The school board will likely vote in favor of hiring a case manager paid in part by the district.

Weslaco, pending approval from the Hidalgo County Board of Judges, may begin the program next year. It would be offered to any juvenile, arrested by Weslaco police, charged with a non-violent misdemeanor.

“This gives these young men and women an opportunity to get a second chance,” Rivera said.

The city and school district also plan to hire six officers for high and middle schools.