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  • InsideTrack
  • February 05, 2020

    Teen Courts: Keeping Teens Out of the Juvenile Justice System

    Three teen court programs, supported by the Wisconsin Law Foundation, make a significant impact in their local communities and the teenagers and families who live there by keeping teens out of the juvenile justice system.
    Crawford County Teen Court participants

    The Crawford County Teen Court program, which relies on Wisconsin Law Foundation grants, has diverted nearly 100 teens from the juvenile justice system. Pictured in this photo from October 2019 are, from left: Program advisor Kari Sanding, with teen court peer jurors Emma Kapinus, 16; Katelyn Lutz, 15; and Mackenzie Pettit, 17.

    Feb. 5, 2020 – One teen learns the impact of bullying. Another writes a paper on the dangers of vaping. A third is ordered to community service and rides along with a deputy sheriff. Judged by their peers after admitting to their misconduct, they faced sentences that fit their crime.

    Teen courts use positive peer pressure to reduce teenage crimes and to introduce teenagers to the workings of the justice system. The defendants face their peers – teenage volunteers trained to administer the court as jury members, prosecuting and defense attorneys, clerks, and bailiffs. They are trained to listen to the youth offender and to deliberate to arrive at a fair and appropriate sentence.

    “It is a good opportunity to help other teens get on the right path,” said teen court juror Emma Kapinus, 16, from Wauzeka-Steuben High School in Wauzeka. “There are a lot of options for defendants other than jail time.”

    Some volunteers have been through the court themselves, and join the volunteers to help their peers. They all get to know local judges, attorneys, and law enforcement. Some go on to seek careers as lawyers.

    A Win-win for Teens, Communities

    Thanks to your generous donations, Wisconsin Law Foundation grants support teen court programs in Crawford, Grant, and Winnebago counties. In some cases, the $2,200 grants entirely fund the program.

    Teen court programs typically involve youth ages 12 to 16 who commit an ordinance violation or misdemeanor crime. If they admit to the charge, their case goes to teen court rather than through the juvenile justice system.

    “The programs are important for juvenile defendants who, accepting responsibility for their actions, truly get a second chance,” said Margaret Herlitzka, Grants Committee chair and Foundation vice president.

    All get a firsthand view of the legal system. “Teen courts also provide the community with a cost-effective way to deal with juvenile offenses,” Herlitzka said.

    Crawford County Teen Court

    The program in Crawford County has diverted nearly 100 teens from the juvenile justice system to face the judgment of their peers. The real impact for the county: a reduction of juvenile cases in the courts, fewer juvenile delinquent acts, and fewer juveniles re-entering the court system.

    “The success of our program is thanks in part to the Foundation’s financial support,” said Kathy Quamme, now-retired teen court coordinator for Crawford County Juvenile Court.

    Kari Sanding, Crawford County Juvenile Court Worker and Teen Court Director, says their time in court is “nerve-wracking” for the teen defendants. “We ask them a lot of questions, such as what their interests are, what they want to do with their lives,” she said. The questions provoke the teens and their parents to think about curfews and discipline – something typically absent in the teen offenders’ lives. “Our jurors taught parents the apps to use to monitor their teen. This empowers parents to hold their child more accountable.”

    The teen jurors use the information gathered from the questions to give meaningful sanctions. “Whether it’s doing community service for a project that they care about or learning more about their substance of choice, the teen defendants learn something from it,” Sanding said.

    The teen jurors learned that one defendant, accused of shoplifting, had a talent for fixing bicycles. The teen was paired with an adult defendant from treatment court knowledgeable in fixing bicycles. Together they fixed abandoned bikes – with parts purchased with Foundation grant funds – and sold the fixed bicycles cheaply to those in need of them.

    A second defendant was “sentenced” to help grade-school children in a summer program. In the end, the teen gained experience as a leader, learned that he liked the children and wanted them to keep looking up to him. He now plans to become a teacher.

    The teen jurors learn to be leaders and be confident in their sentence recommendations. “This is a confidence builder and a great way to learn about the courts,” said Sanding. “Their input is valued and they learn to lead, taking turns as foreman and leading the discussion.”

    The experience has inspired teen court juror Katelyne Lutz, 15, from Prairie du Chien High School to explore becoming a lawyer. “This is my favorite organization to volunteer with by far,” she said. “It's an amazing opportunity to learn how court cases work, and to be professional and understanding with the defendants and their different backgrounds.”

    Many teen jurors hope to become lawyers, Sanding said. “It gives them an understanding of the justice system, that it can be used to accentuate a defendant’s positive side and engage them in things they wouldn’t normally do.”

    Great Partners

    “Teen courts is a great example of community programs that support the Foundation’s mission to promote public understanding of the law and law-related public service, and to improve the administration of justice,” said Herlitzka. “Without our support, these programs might not have the necessary resources for a successful program.”

    In Winnebago County, the program involves members of the community in addition to the students. “The Foundation grant allows us to do a lot more with the program, to make a better impact on the defendants and student volunteers,” said Teen Court Case Manager Rachael Van Dyke of Winnebago County.

    The teen court program “allows students to avoid the juvenile justice system and to make positive choices,” Van Dyke said. “And it’s a great opportunity for students to become involved in the community. It’s a win-win for everyone.”

    Help us continue to support and expand teen and peer courts throughout the state by making a donation to the Wisconsin Law Foundation. Your donations support programming that gives Wisconsin youth a second chance.

    “We hope to support more teen court programs in the future,” Herlitzka said.

    “Please let us know about your local program,” she said. “If there isn’t one, I encourage local bar associations interested in working collaboratively with judges, local law enforcement, and area youth to create a teen court for their community.”

    This article was originally published in the Fall 2019 issue of Impact, the newsletter of the Wisconsin Law Foundation.

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