A jury of their peers

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     When 15-year-old Lucy decided to stash a small amount of marijuana in her bedroom, she got more than a few surprises.

     She didn't expect her mother to find it. Nor did she anticipate her parents turning her in to the police. She certainly didn't foresee being arrested at home and charged with possessing a controlled substance.

     But the biggest surprise came when she learned that if she participated in the local teen court and fulfilled her sentence there, she could avoid paying the fine and clear her juvenile and school records.

     "I couldn't say no to that," she recalls.

     However, what she first viewed as an easy way to weasel out of trouble turned out to be a valuable lesson in how her actions affected her family and community. A jury of her peers sentenced her to 15 hours of community service, three jury terms, an eight-week AODA class, and required her to write apologies to her parents and siblings, all of which had to be finished within 12 weeks to successfully complete the program.

     "It was a lot of work," she says, recalling that she missed social activities, sports events and practice and more to fulfill her obligations to the court.

     But she says she learned a lot along the way, especially through community service and jury terms. She discovered her actions affected more than just herself and learned she liked being noticed for positive things — like tutoring elementary students at the school district's after-school program — far more.

     Today Lucy mentors at-risk youth, pulls good grades, plays sports and her marijuana use is but a distant memory. "I don't want to get in trouble again," she says.

     Mary, Lucy's mother, maintains the teen court experience positively impacted her daughter, who she says has become far more responsible. "I'm not naive enough to think she'll never do anything wrong again — she is a teen after all — but being in the program taught her a lesson she won't soon forget."

     This is exactly what's meant to happen when teens enter a youth court program, which is designed to address youth who've committed a crime, delinquent-status offense or exhibit other problem behaviors, according to Tracy Mullins, senior research associate with the American Probation and Parole Association. She maintains youth courts hold teens accountable while arming them with important life skills in public speaking, problem solving and critical thinking.

     Communities base such programs on the premise that as young people receive their first taste of independence, they often make mistakes. "We all did things at ages 14 or 15 that we are not proud of," asserts Watertown, Wis., Police Chief Tim Roets, whose agency began participating in the Jefferson County Teen Court a few years ago. He says peer courts help correct problem behaviors before they put youth at risk. "If you can leave a lasting impression and correct these behaviors without a rigid fine or an offense that remains on their record throughout their teenage years, you can't help but be successful," he says.

Youth court principles

     At its core, youth court has two main goals:

  1. Response to the behavior. That's its forte, says Jack Levine, president of Tallahassee, Fla.'s 4Generations Institute, a non-profit organization designed to bridge the gap between generations. The community and public policy consultant on juvenile crime for the National Association of Youth Courts says the programs set up a system of contractual relationships. Evidence is brought forth for teen jurors to base their decisions upon. Behavioral consequences might include restitution, community service and personal restrictions. The program also incorporates an implied threat — a youth who fails to follow through faces further referrals and severe consequences.
  2. Building youth responsibility. The civic aspect, brought about through community service, jury duty and restitution, teaches youth about their responsibilities within the community. "It allows a young person whose behaviors are deemed inappropriate to develop skills and tools that turn into appropriate behavior," Levine says, pointing out that youth court participation can be a mechanism for this to occur. Some of the best youth court ambassadors, he says, came through the doors with an offense on paper.

     However, teen court isn't a good fit for every troubled teen. According to Tom Schleitwiler, director of Jefferson County Human Services in Wisconsin, teen courts meet the needs of low-risk kids, committing first-time offenses. Had the teen's arrest in the opening example been her second, third or fourth offense, she would have gone through the traditional court system instead, says Jessica Breezer, a restorative justice specialist with Opportunities Inc., the Fort Atkinson, Wis., organization that administers Jefferson County Teen Court.

     Studies show a low recidivism rate — less than 13 percent — among teen court participants, says Schleitwiler. Proponents argue these low-risk kids self-corrected their behavior, and Schleitwiler admits this may be true. However, he reminds that greater problems often arise when young offenders enter the traditional juvenile justice system instead.

     He offers the following scenario: A teen vandalizes his neighbor's property and breaks a window. In teen court, a group of his peers tells him he must pay $100 dollars of restitution, apologize to his neighbor, fix the window, and perform 20 hours of community service. Now if this teen appears before a traditional court, he will be handled in the same process as a youth committing a rape or battery. He may not receive jail time, but will likely be placed on probation and have a permanent blemish on his record. Worse yet, the message he receives may continue his downward spiral.

     "Here's a case where you have taken a low-risk kid, who might have self-corrected, and gave him the hardest possible outcome the system can offer," he says. "The research shows when you take low-risk people and apply high-risk interventions, you're likely to create high-risk offenders. You've labeled them and told them what the community thinks of them as a person, and there's a self-fulfilling prophecy in that."

It takes a village

     The success of teen courts hinges on the old proverb, "It takes a whole village to raise a child." Without solid commitment from the entire community, these programs may meet with failure. "You will never succeed in remedying any social problem without a high level of understanding and cooperation from the community," Schleitwiler explains.

     The successful youth program brings together a diverse group of people to set common goals. This includes professionals in law enforcement, probation, schools and courts, but also members of social and civic groups and the business community, says Mullins. She states these groups need to be aware of the program, be given an opportunity to become involved, and be allowed to provide insight into what the program will look like and whom it's going to affect. "Programs with this type of community input function more smoothly down the line," she says.

     Here law enforcement plays a crucial role. Officers can help train youth volunteers as well as set the referral process and determine problems youth court can reasonably address. Mullins says officers know what they are charging teens with and issuing citations for. They also know what they are not citing because they feel there is nothing they can appropriately use to address the behavior. These are all critical considerations in youth court programs.

     Like chess players considering their next move, adults involved in juvenile justice must weigh their strategies carefully. Making the right move requires an understanding of young people's motivations and a quick and clear response that doesn't over-state the problem, says Levine. He calls it being tough, while being smart.

     "Being smart is what youth court is about," he says. "It recognizes that ignoring problem behaviors usually makes them worse, but overstepping them with a heavy hand often makes them worse yet."

     Ultimately, understanding youth-related issues means tapping into the source of them — the young people themselves. "Young people and their peers have a much more direct knowledge of what works," Levine says. "They know that at the heart of many transgressions is a lack of discipline and lack of direct attention to the problem."

     An important piece in building a successful teen court also resides in responsible adult oversight, from a parent, guardian or key adult.

     "When a young person is in trouble and there is no one to stand up and say, 'He's mine; she's mine. I'm going to be part of the solution,' the system usually comes down harder," says Levine. He adds teens need, and want, someone who feels responsible for them to step in and provide an extra level of supervision.

Their day in court

     Teens typically run the entire youth court hearing. They sit on the jury and act as defense attorneys and prosecutors, while key adults preside over the proceedings to guide them. Teens ask questions as the youth testifies and parents are asked to testify about the youth's character. The jury then leaves the room to deliberate.

     "I supervise the kids, but have no part in the decision," Breezer says of Jefferson County's program. She reminds jurors of appropriate case details but they decide the punishment, which can range from 5 to 35 hours of community service, an educational class with mandatory jail tour, projects such as an essay about what they could have done differently, apology letters and more. "Teen court isn't easy and I don't think it should be," says Breezer of the requirements jurors set forth.

     Having one's peers sit in judgment of their behaviors has a powerful impact, adds Mullins. Teens often think everybody's doing it but learn not everyone is. Teen court works because it has peers influencing peers, instead of yet another adult telling kids what they should do. "Your peers are saying that was pretty stupid, and this is what we think you need to do to make up for that," she says. "It's a pretty powerful message."

     Ronnie Garrett recently left the Cygnus Law Enforcement Group to pursue a career in photography. She may be reached at garrettnco@yahoo.com or through her Web site at www.garrettncostudios.com.

Breaking through barriers

     Not everyone agrees with the teen court philosophy. In fact some opponents refer to it as "kiddie" court, and assert these mechanisms let offenders get away with their poor behavior. An effective teen court program requires an attitudinal shift among law enforcement professionals and the community at-large, admits Jack Levine, spokesman for the National Association of Youth Courts.

     Jessica Breezer, restorative justice specialist for the Jefferson County (Wis.) Teen Court, echoes this sentiment. She says getting officers to embrace the concept can be tough initially. "Some officers don't agree with teen court; for them it's just one more thing to think about," she says. "And many believe these cases should stay in the traditional juvenile justice system."

     Most departments, Levine says, champion two primary goals: Reducing crime and being effective. He adds youth courts fit well in this model. "The idea that youth court is soft on crime is false," he says. "You're actually fighting crime more effectively at this level of offender with a real knowledge of what makes kids think and tick. You are putting kids on a positive path, which is everyone's goal."

     Education, training and experience can sway doubting attitudes, Levine adds. He recommends agencies participate in the national group Fight Crime Invest in Kids found at www.fightcrime.org and contact the National Association of Youth Courts at www.youthcourt.net to learn more about the youth court concept and appropriate training opportunities.