- Associated Press - Thursday, February 27, 2014

LARAMIE, Wyo. (AP) - Several youths on juvenile probation brought a tough line of questioning to District Court Judge Jeffrey Donnell on a recent evening.

Conversing over pasta and salad, the judge leveled with them.

“Were you ever in this kind of trouble?” asked one, a student in the Greater Wyoming Big Brothers Big Sisters Progressive Youth program.

“No,” Donnell replied. “It was frankly because I didn’t get caught.”

The teenagers sat with Donnell at a round table in the Big Brothers Big Sisters gym.

At nearby tables, other youths dined with counselors, attorneys and probation officers.

The dinner - a Progressive Youth program tradition - was organized for students on probation to meet on informal terms with local judicial system professionals. Their names are not being used because of their age.

Students in Progressive Youth are on probation for various reasons, said Amanda Robbins-Lilley, program coordinator.

They’re referred to the program by Wyoming Department of Family Services workers or probation officers.

The program then tries to reintegrate youth into their families, schools and communities while keeping them safe and holding them accountable for their actions.

To achieve those goals, Progressive Youth offers adult mentors, academic assistance, community service, job training, life skills development, family support services and more.

The dinner - organized by students in the program - is meant to melt away some of the animosity that might exist between adjudicated youth and judicial system professionals, Robbins-Lilley said.

“It’s just to understand that we’re all humans and for everyone to interact on that human level,” she said. “Not as judge and juvenile, not as the judge viewing the kids only as their case … but just as the 17-year-old that’s an amazing skateboarder or straight-A student.”

At Donnell’s table, a student picked up on another youth’s questions for Donnell.

“Never jail time?” he asked the judge.

“Nope, never did go to jail,” Donnell said. “I could have, had I gotten caught, but I never did.”

“What’s the worst trouble you’ve ever gotten into?” the first student asked.

“Oh, I don’t think we want to go there.”

“I thought this was all about honesty?” asked another, who sat across from the judge.

“Well, let’s just say there isn’t much you could do that I haven’t either done or considered doing, and let’s just leave it at that,” Donnell said.

“If you told us, you’d have to kill us - is it that kind of thing?” the second student asked asked.

“Something like that,” Donnell said.

Everyone at the table laughed.

About 50 people attended the night’s dinner. The meal was prepared by students in the program.

Robbins-Lilley said the hope is that the dinner would help show the students that people like Donnell care about them.

“All of us, including myself and youth workers and the judge and probation officers, we all work in our jobs because we care about kids, and we care about these kids specifically,” she said.

“This is to hopefully help them understand that. It’s not just the consequences and the ankle monitors. Those things aren’t why we love our jobs. We love our jobs because we care about kids, and it’s rewarding to see them do well and mature and change their thinking.”

During the dinner, Donnell and the youths made small talk on University of Wyoming sports, cooking, the Wyoming Boys School in Worland and several other subjects.

As the talk wound down, a youth from another table called out to Donnell.

“You should come sit with us,” she said.

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