A jury of their peers

Teen courts help communities get smart about being tough

     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.

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