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Peer pressure has often been thought of as kids being a bad influence on each other.
In Lone Tree Teen Court, available for first-time youth offenders, peer influence is what it's all about.
“Youth do feel more comfortable talking to other youth about what happened,” said Elise Krumholz, teen court coordinator for the City of Lone Tree. “Often times we focus on negative peer influence, and how that can lead to bad situations. In teen court we really try to flip that on its head and say positive peer influence is just as powerful.”
In teen court, first-time youth offenders of misdemeanor crimes appear before a jury of their peers, between the ages of 12 and 17. The trained youth volunteers serve as prosecuting attorneys and jury members. The offender is questioned as if in municipal court trial, and given sentences by their peers. Sentences are specific to each offender, with the intention of providing the offender a path to repair the harm of the offense. Sentences could be lighter or harsher than one given by a judge.
Sentencing could include a letter of apology, community service or educational classes. Offenders are often sentenced to serve as a jury member on the next trial.
According to Krumholz, sometimes a letter of apology is all it takes to get a teenager to realize the consequence of a bad decision. Taking accountability for their actions, she said, is vital to stopping bad behavior before it gets out of control.
“With peer-driven justice, their peers are helping them hold themselves accountable through sentencing requirements,” said Krumholz.
Shoplifting, curfew violations, minor in possession and vandalism are some of the offenses seen in teen court, and the goal is to help each teen understand why they committed the offense and how the offense has affected others, and to take responsibility for repairing the harm done, according to the mission statement of the teen court.
“These kids are not bad kids, they've just made bad decisions,” said Tammy Hawkins, president of the National Association of Teen Courts. “What we want to do is help them figure out what they will do different next time.”
And, according to Hawkins, if kids come into the court thinking their peers will go easier on them than an adult, they're sorely mistaken.
“These kids don't feel sorry for you. They've all been where you are, and are now sitting on the other side of the law,” she said. “They have to justify their sentencing and penalty, but they don't pull any punches.”
“The earlier these kids learn about the real world, and it's consequences, the better for them,” said Hawkins.
According to a report published by the National Institute of Justice, early intervention is important.
“Studies agree that 40 to 60 percent of juvenile delinquents stop offending by early adulthood. For those who do persist, the transition from adolescence to adulthood is a period of increasing severity of offenses and an increase in lethal violence.”
Teens who choose teen court over municipal court must commit to a six-month duration of jurisdiction, with three months to complete their sentencing. During that six-month time they cannot get in trouble, or their case will be referred back to municipal court for prosecution. If they complete their sentencing their case will be dismissed.
Lone Tree Teen Court is held every Monday evening. The program is always looking for youth and adult volunteers, and offers a general legal training three times a year for volunteers. Contact Elise Krumholz at 720-509-1265 or Elise.Krumholz@cityoflonetree.com.
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