Howard Lake-Waverly Herald, April 3, 2000

Wright County to try 'Teen Court'

By John Holler

With an increase in teen crime gripping Wright County, alternatives to try to slow it down have been explored.

One of the latest, which will be unveiled this spring, is Teen Court - in which peers render legally binding decisions and punishments as an alternative to the traditional court process.

Court Services Director Mike MacMillan brought the Wright County Board a status report on the Teen Court program at the board's March 28 meeting. MacMillan said that, in 1991, the county's juvenile probation population was 364 people. In 1998, those numbers had grown to 624 ­ a 72 percent increase in just seven years.

"When you have numbers growing like that, you look for any alternatives you can find," MacMillan said. "We're trying to use everyone in the system to make the program work and be a success."

Under the rules of Teen Court, a juvenile offender is questioned by the teen jurors and the jury determines the appropriate sentence ­ whether it be restitution, community service, letters of apology, educational classes or curfew restrictions, to name a few.

The crimes, which are petty or misdemeanor offenses, will include 90-day probation for the offenders. If the offender completes the 90-day probation and the conditions of the sentence, the case will be closed and removed from the juvenile's record. However, if the offender fails to comply with the stipulations of the sentence, the case will be referred back to the standard juvenile court system.

"The best part of the program from my perspective is that the program has kids dealing with their peers," Commissioner Ken Jude said. "A lot of juveniles don't have the same attitude toward their peers as they would with the traditional adult court system. If they find out from their own peers that what they're doing isn't cool, maybe it will be the step that's needed to get them to make a change before they get in more serious trouble down the line."

MacMillan said that his initial concern was finding enough potential kids to serve as jurors, because he wasn't sure there would be sufficient interest. He said he has been pleasantly surprised by the results.

"As of right now, we already have 150 kids who have volunteered to serve as jurors, and we still have one more school district to go," MacMillan said. "We weren't sure at first if we would get any volunteers, so we're very pleased with the results so far."

The jurors are high school students ages 15 to 18 and will begin the first Teen Court sessions in May and then, begin in full swing next fall.

While the commissioners will monitor the progress of the program, the board feels that the county's proactive stance on restorative justice is a step in the right direction in stemming the growing numbers of teen crimes that are striking Wright County.

"At this point, we don't know if this program will be a success or an exercise in futility," Commissioner Pat Sawatzke said. "But, from what I've seen, it looks like it has a lot of positive points to it that could make it a success."

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