The increase in juvenile delinquency and overburdened court calendars have forced some Minnesota counties to generate more creative ways to address the rising numbers of youth entering the justice system.
One approach has been the implementation of teen or peer courts. Under these programs, juveniles who commit minor offenses and admit their guilt are diverted away from the juvenile court system and instead appear before a jury of their peers for sentencing. Upon successful completion of their sentences, criminal charges against the juveniles are dismissed and their records are cleared of the offenses.
Blue Earth County was the first to establish a “Teen Court,” holding its first session in July 1997. Several other counties, including Dakota, Lyon, Brown, Mower, and Martin counties, have since followed suit and implemented some form of teen court. So far, the approach seems to be working.
“It is a middle ground between school-centered sanctions and juvenile court,” said District Court Judge Thomas B. Poch, who spearheaded the implementation of Dakota County’s Peer Court program. “It is a way to teach individuals accountability and responsible decision making . .. it teaches integrity.”
Stemming the tide
Counties report that the primary impetus for implementing juvenile peer courts was to stem the tide of increasing juvenile crime and address burgeoning criminal court calendars.
Teen Court seemed to be a way to reduce the number of cases in juvenile court, as well as a way to provide an opportunity for youth to serve as jurors, said Michael McGuire of Blue Earth County Community Corrections. There is also a belief that teens learn better from their peers than they do from probation officers or other members of the court system, he added.
Tom Neilon, the Director of Corrections Services for Mower County—which implemented Teen Court about two years ago—agreed. “Kids know kids better than adults know kids,” he said.
Similarly, Martin County Teen Court—modeled after Blue Earth County’s program—was initiated about two and a half years ago in response to a growing concern over the increase in juvenile cases. There was also concern over the effectiveness of the sentences that were being imposed upon the juveniles, said Martin County Court Administrator Linda Sandberg.
In Dakota County, for years Poch had been seeking new and creative ways to address the steady increase in juvenile crime. After learning of a peer court program in Orange County, California, Poch met with Dakota County Attorney James C. Backstrom to discuss the concept. The two of them—working with community corrections, law enforcement and local schools—developed “Dakota County Peer Court,” a slightly more formalized version of teen courts found in other counties, which held its first session in May of this year.
The kids referred to Peer Court are those who are expected to succeed, said Poch. “Some kids just don’t belong in juvenile court.”
Although the counties’ teen court programs differ in minor respects, in principle they are the same. Juveniles who commit minor offenses are given the option of proceeding to juvenile court for formal prosecution or participating in teen court for sentencing.
Juveniles who choose to proceed through teen court must admit guilt and waive the right to an attorney. At the hearing, a jury—made up of teen volunteers—hears from the offenders, their parents, and sometimes the victims involved. The jury also questions the offenders about the circumstances surrounding the illegal behavior.
The jury then deliberates and comes up with an appropriate sentence. Juveniles who refuse to abide by the sentences imposed, or fail to complete their sentences, are required to proceed to juvenile court for formal prosecution.
While most counties hold teen court sessions in their courthouses, Dakota County Peer Court sessions are held at local schools other than the one the offender attends. Moreover, unlike in other teen courts, Poch presides over the entire Peer Court session.
In some counties, such as Martin and Blue Earth, a judge is present at the beginning of the session to explain the process and accept the juvenile’s guilty plea, but then leaves the room. Thereafter, either a bailiff or a member of the probation department takes over the session.
Lyon County Teen Court Coordinator Lori Hanna-Goelz said that the county’s teen court program is much like the one in Blue Earth County, but that it does not use a judge. Instead, as the teen court coordinator, she runs the sessions and follows up with the juveniles to be sure that they complete their sentences.
The number of sessions held each month and the number of juveniles sentenced at each session also varies among the counties. Most hold sessions two or three times per month and sentence four to six juveniles during each session.
“We have had as many as 10 kids sentenced at one session,” said Sandberg. Other times, when there were not enough kids, they have canceled sessions, she added.
For the most part, only juveniles who commit minor offenses are eligible for teen court. In most counties using the teen court model, offenses which qualify for the program include curfew violations, vandalism, shoplifting, minor assaults, alcohol and tobacco-related offenses, and disorderly conduct. Some counties limit participation to first time or nonviolent property offenders.
The jury members—consisting of four to six teens age 13 to 18—are volunteers recruited through the schools and trained by court personnel. Jurors who know the offender are not permitted to serve on the jury.
During the hearing, the jury members are allowed to ask the juvenile offenders questions surrounding the illegal activity that brought them to teen court. The questions are often very detailed and in-depth, Sandberg noted.
The jury may also ask the parents questions and allow the offender the opportunity to make a statement.
After the questioning, the jury leaves the room, discusses the offense, and determines what sentence is appropriate for the juvenile.
Unlike other counties, Dakota County uses volunteer attorneys who serve as advisors to the jury during its deliberations. Assistant Dakota County Attorney Pauline Halpenny, who has served as a volunteer attorney, explained that they make a short presentation before the questioning begins, essentially describing the process and explaining how peer court is different from juvenile court.
The volunteer attorney also accompanies the jury to the deliberation room and is available to answer any questions it may have during the process, said Halpenny. The attorneys don’t provide suggestions, but instead remind the jurors that the sentence is up to them, she added.
Halpenny got involved in the process because she works in the area of child protection and has always had an interest in helping young people. “I really enjoy it and I highly recommend it to attorneys who are interested in participating,” Halpenny observed.
Juries are given some general guidelines for sentencing, “but they can be creative too,” said Sandberg. Sentences can include, but are not limited to:
• community service;
• attending educational programs or victim offender mediations;
• attending counseling;
• writing letters of apology;
• writing essays explaining why what the youth did was wrong; and
• participating in teen court as a juror.
Neilon observed that sitting on a teen court jury is a mandatory part of the offender’s sentence in Mower County. “We see this as a way to empower the offender,” said Neilon. “And it forces them to learn about the system,” he added.
In Dakota County, Poch retains the ability to amend the sentence if it is too harsh or too lenient. “I act as a buffer,” said Poch, adding that he won’t let a kid get “railroaded,” nor will he let a kid “skate.”
Offending juveniles are given a set amount of time to complete the sentence imposed by the jury, which varies from three to six months depending on the county. Juveniles who do not complete their sentences are sent back to the organization that referred them or to juvenile court for formal prosecution.
Each county designates someone to follow up with the juveniles to see that they carry out their sentences. Some counties use probation officers or corrections agents and others use teen court coordinators.
Generally, if the juvenile completes the sentence imposed by the teen court jury, the charge is dismissed and there is no record of the offense.
Counties report that failure to complete or follow through on the sentences imposed in teen court has not been an issue.
“Only a couple have not completed their sentences in the three years the program has been operating [in Martin County],” said Sandberg.
McGuire added that “most teens [in Blue Earth County] and their parents leave court thinking that they have been treated fairly.” There have been some who have not followed through with their sentences, but the percentage is very low, he said.
The success of the teen court programs is obvious. Counties report that almost all juveniles complete their sentences and very few re-offend.
“We are very happy with the program,” said Sandberg. “The probation agents are happy we are lightening their load … as are the judges.”
Sandberg also noted that Martin County has been tracking its recidivism rate for juveniles who have gone through Teen Court and only a few of them committed crimes after going through the process.
Similarly, the Blue Earth County program has worked “better than I thought it would,” said McGuire. “The closest thing we have had to a problem is that there are more females than males volunteering for the jury,” he added.
Noting that about 100 juveniles per year are being sentenced through the Blue Earth County Teen Court, McGuire said: “We are looking at how to increase the numbers by 40-50 per year. The system is running well enough now that we have time to make it happen.”