One Saturday a month, a group of teens from area schools get up early to meet at the Grant County Court House to fix the harm that has been done by offenders.
Grant County Teen Court, in its fourth year, is built on a model of restorative justice, a model that is not about punishment, but about repairing the damage to victims.
In the traditional legal system, offenders are accountable to the court and the immediate victim of their crimes. In Teen Court, offenders are accountable to their peers and all of the victims of their crime.
“One of our most important objectives is helping the respondent grow as a person,” said Clayton Vesperman, a Teen Court juror. “We don’t want them to only get punished during the process. We want them to understand the implications of their actions and how they could impact their future. We try to help and prepare them to be successful in the future.”
Every offender is given a list of sanctions. The two that are mandatory are jury terms and community service.
“When giving sanctions, we try to look for ways to help bring out the respondent’s interests, or help them discover what they like to do and how to do it, while also attempting to teach them a work ethic or discipline,” said Tucker Trefz, a Teen Court juror. “Sometimes we require them to help out the custodians at their school or organize at the library or second hand store. Other times we require them to job shadow and write a report on their future goals. We also encourage them to find extracurricular activities, such as homework club, hockey club, 4-H, and others to join.”
Teen Court reviews the cases at 30, 60, and 90 days. At the 30-day check-in, the Teen Court does a circle based on the principles of restored justice.
“During circles, jurors and respondents gather together in a circle of chairs,” says Isabel Glasbrenner, a Teen Court juror.
“Here, we take turns talking about recent activities, and how efforts in Teen Court are going. A circle presents the opportunity to really connect with the respondent, not as jurors, but as peers who are here to support one another. This has an amazingly positive effect on the respondent.”
Jury members benefit from this experience as well. “Although Teen Court helps the community, it also helps the jurors personally,” said Brendan Turben, a Teen Court juror. “When we help a respondent with their goals it makes us feel like we have accomplished a personal goal.”
In addition to their time on Saturdays, the jurors also take the time to mentor the respondent. “One of my favorite things about Teen Court is being able to mentor the respondents, because every person deserves someone who will never give up on them, who understands the power of connection, and insists they become the best that they can be,” said Erin Murray, a Teen Court juror. “We will keep in contact with the respondent, whether it be through email, a phone call, or even in person. Our goal is to figure out why the respondent acted in such a way, and how we can personally fix that. The balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image, but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.”
Teen Court targets first-time offenders who have admitted their involvement misdemeanors or ordinance violations. Teen Court has dealt with a variety of issues including truancy, harassment, theft, and disorderly conduct to property. If the restorative sanctions are not completed, Teen Court revokes its jurisdiction and refers the matter back to juvenile court or to law enforcement, as appropriate, for citations.
Teen Court students are working with the Platteville community to have it join the Teen Court process.
“Getting involved in Teen Court can be a rewarding experience, as I have seen in my short time here,” said Saafia Masoom, a Teen Court juror. “The goals of the program could be even better accomplished with diverse perspectives form different areas and different schools. It is definitely something volunteers, the area schools, and police departments should be aware of,”
Law enforcement agencies or school districts looking to be involved in the Teen Court process can contact Sarah Hopkins at the UW–Extension Office, Deb Reukauf at the Lancaster Police Department, or Tom Hughey at Lancaster High School.