Juvenile offenders get second chance in south Washington County peer court programIn the past two years, the program has seen over 200 offenders from throughout south Washington County.
Police were called in the early morning hours one July day on a report of a juvenile who was unconscious on the front lawn of a Woodbury home.
The teenager was brought to a hospital and his parents were called. Hours later, the boy was released. He had passed out after taking a friend’s prescription drugs and drinking an excessive amount of alcohol.
Because of the nature of the crimes, his age and his lack of a criminal record, the boy is given an opportunity to keep his record clean. To do so, he must plead guilty to underage drinking and violating curfew and participate in a program called Peer COR, or Peer Council for Offense Resolution. He pleads guilty and agrees to participate.
Over 200 cases
The Peer COR program was launched in 2009 at East Ridge High School to serve south Washington County juveniles. Jean Hancock, the school’s resource officer, said she believed there should be a better way to handle minor offenses such as truancy, underage consumption and other similar crimes than by sending juveniles through the traditional court system.
In the past two years, the program has seen over 200 offenders. Roughly 50 offenders took part in 2009 and so far this year. Around 100 youths went through the program last year. There are about 20 hearings a year, with four to six cases per hearing.
Peer COR is presented to high school-aged juveniles in the School District 833 boundaries and to those attending district schools as a way to receive consequences for illegal behavior but not have to face a traditional judge and jury. Instead, the juvenile offenders must admit guilt and then appear before a small jury of their peers who will decide their fate. In addition, the juvenile’s parents or guardians must agree to and participate in the process.
Most offenders are referred by law enforcement, their school or their parents. Youths accepted into the program are most frequently first-time offenders, but occasionally have multiple offenses on their record. Their cases are reviewed by program administrators before they are given the chance to participate.
School resource officers often have to make judgment calls when deciding whether to refer an offender to the program, taking into account the individual and the offense, said Jane O’Donnell, an investigations administrative assistant for the Woodbury Police Department who works with the program.
“Juveniles who commit these crimes often don’t know that they’re committing a crime.” added Allison Kuhlman of the Woodbury Police Department. She serves as the Peer COR coordinator.
When a juvenile is accepted into the program, a hearing date is set.
“The youth has to appear with their parents by their side,” said Adam Sack, a Woodbury police community service officer.
After they have arrived with their parents, the offenders are assigned a jury of four to six fellow teens. The offender is sworn to honesty and confidentiality. Then they exit to a waiting area while the juries for each case go into separate rooms to debrief on their case files and come up with questions to ask their offender.
“If you can get down to what the issue really is,” said Kesley Lisowski, “they’ll actually open up.” Lisowski, 16, is a junior at East Ridge High School and a lead juror for Peer COR. She has been with the program since it’s development in 2009.
After discussing the case, one juror, who has taken the role of bailiff for the day, exits the room to get the family and escort them back in. The jurors then take turns asking questions of the offender and their parents.
Family has role
Back at the hearing for the juvenile who passed out in the yard, the boy and his parents enter to take questions from the jury. The jurors asked him to explain what he had done. He did so in as few words as possible, fidgeting under the table. The jurors took turns asking him about his reasoning for committing the crimes, how he felt about his actions, his history with alcohol and drugs, and about his family.
“Family-oriented questions are often the most meaningful,” Sack said, “while victims and witnesses often make the most powerful cases.”
The jurors then turned to his parents. They asked questions about their trust levels in their son, how he was being punished and how they reacted to the situation.
The jury also gave the parents an opportunity to recommend potential sentences for their child.
“Sometimes the best sentences are suggested by the family,” Hancock said.
After an hour of questioning, the jury sent the boy and his parents out of the room to wait while they put together a reparation agreement.
The jurors bounced a number of ideas off of each other and their adult facilitator. After another hour of deliberation, they came up with a satisfactory reparation agreement.
“We’re really looking for constructive consequences,” Sack said.
The bailiff brought the family back into the room to hear the result s. For this offender, the consequences include 12 hours of community service, classes at the Youth Service Bureau, and serving as a juror in future Peer COR hearings.
Offenders must pay for any fees associated with consequences, such as the cost of drug tests and Youth Service Bureau classes.
Organizers said the program is not a way for kids to get out of facing consequences for their actions. It is taken seriously and the results are encouraging.
“We’re not here to punish,” Kuhlman said, “we’re here to restore the hurt that was done.”
“It is helping the community,” Lisowski added, “It has really helped a lot of kids turn around.”
The recidivism rates of the program are significantly lower than that of the traditional court system, Kuhlman said, and the administrators see other significant improvements in the offenders’ lives.
Peer COR organizers could not provide statistics on recidivism, but said the alternative sentencing approach is successful. Dakota County has operated a peer court for over 10 years.
“We haven’t failed very many offending juveniles,” Kuhlman said of Peer COR. “The biggest testament to the program’s success is that they come back to volunteer.”