Beginning this fall, juvenile offenders in Lone Tree will have an opportunity to participate in a life-changing program that could give them a second chance at making it out of their teens without a criminal record.
The City of Lone Tree is developing a Teen Court program based on the principle of restorative justice as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system for first-time, misdemeanor offenders.
Though historically targeted at younger offenders, juveniles between the ages of 11-17 may be eligible. Designated as respondents, the juveniles must be referred to Teen Court by the 18th Judicial District Court and have committed nonviolent offenses.
“The 18th Judicial has a diversion program,” said Lone Tree City Clerk Jennifer Pettinger. “A lot of those kids don't need the intense counseling that they receive as part of that program, and the DA's office feels that they would be great candidates for going into our Teen Court programs.”
The Diversion Program recommends qualified candidates in the jurisdiction where their crimes were committed, and the municipality makes a determination whether to accept them or not.
“I can't imagine too many cases that we would turn down, just because the collaboration has been so good,” Pettinger said. “There are only so many resources that you have, so when I say addressing all the kids, we hope to address the majority of the kids.”
Respondents are interviewed at intake appointments, and once accepted they are questioned by peer panels or undergo a full trial. The proceedings are run by teen volunteers who serve as prosecution, defense and jury. Some programs have adults who preside as judges, and in other programs that duty is performed by the volunteers.
Once testimony is heard, the peer panels or juries decide on an appropriate punishment. The punishments can range from apologizing to a store manager for shoplifting and interviewing other storeowners on the effects of shoplifting for an essay. Juries also mandate community service, or random drug or alcohol testing.
If respondents comply with the teen court “sentence” over the course of the program, the criminal charges are dropped, and the teen receives a letter of completion.
“The more you get into it the more passionate you get about it,” said Steve Hebert, Lone Tree deputy city manager. “Personally I was kind of skeptical at first, and then I sat in on the Castle Rock Teen Court panel, and I thought, `Oh my gosh, this is really good stuff.'”
When the City of Lone Tree began discussing their plans for Teen Court, Douglas County also expressed an interest in becoming involved.
“We in tandem started having conversations with Parker, Castle Rock, and the county about this whole youth diversion program ... We said that when we get one ready, those kids can be fed into our system as well,” Hebert said.
Castle Rock launched its Teen Court program in the summer of 2008 and uses both a trial and peer panel system. In 2015, the court tried 70 respondents who performed 1,276 hours of community service. The 40 student volunteers who served as prosecutors or juries put in an additional 1,750 hours.
Teen courts have been around since the 1970s, originating in Texas. Studies from around the country as to their effectiveness at reducing teen recidivism are mixed, but the council is encouraged by the numbers in Colorado that reflect a 10 percent recidivism rate.
Recidivism rates are difficult to track, but as of December, around 3 percent of the 2015 respondents participating in Castle Rock's Teen Court had reoffended, and 93 percent completed the requirements set down by the court.
The Lone Tree City Council has budgeted $50,000 for the program for 2016, and the city posted an opening for a part-time Teen Court coordinator to oversee the program on April 11.
“Once that person is hired the program implementation will really begin,” said Pettinger. “We're hoping to recruit for volunteers in September and then … in November, hold our Teen Court session.”
The number of cases heard by Lone Tree's Teen Court will depend on the number of volunteers that sign up, but Pettinger hopes the court could hear between 20 and 30 cases each month once it is up and fully running.
“You're changing a path that the kid's going down,” said Pettinger. “That's a win-win.”