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Alternative court proposed by youth council

June 18, 1992: Volume 19, No. 12
A regional youth council is pushing to establish a pilot teen court program in some communities in northwestern Ontario. The idea is to have first-time offenders, who have already pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges, attend a teen court where they will be tried, defended and finally sentenced by a jury of their peers.

Mary-Jean Cormier, programs coordinator with the Regional Multicultural Youth Council in Thunder Bay says, “There was general consensus among the youth at our 1991 bi-annual youth conference that the current court system is not doing enough to help many of their peers. We feel that some improvements are needed to make the correctional system more fair and detour juveniles from becoming repeat offenders.”

“Right now we’re just looking at establishing a teen court in selected communities as a pilot project to see if it would work,” says Cormier. She adds it would be an alternative to the present juvenile court system.

The youth council is presently “testing the waters,” Cormier says, to see how supportive agencies would be of the project. Letters to provincial ministries, members of parliament and First Nation bands have been sent out by the council, so far, with no response.

“We believe that with input and support, our proposed teen courts can have a positive impact on our peers. We have willing youth volunteers from the schools to help set the program in motion,” says Cormier. With no teen court programs to draw on in Canada, Cormier says the youth council is looking at established teen courts south of the border.

The state of Indiana has six teen courts out of 92 counties.

Jim Killen, director of Indiana Youth Services Association, says teen courts are an excellent alternative to a strained juvenile court system.

In an interview, Killen says, “It can reduce the pressure on the court by delegating some of the minor offenses to (the teen court)” when a judge simply does not have the time to deal with a first offender.

“What we’ve done is gone after the first time offender and instead of getting a slap on the wrist by a judge, they are told by their peers that this isn't appropriate behaviour,” says Sarah Faur, Indianapolis Southside teen court diversion program coordinator.

Killen and Faur call it positive peer pressure. And according to statistics, it works.

“We’re using adolescent peer pressure in a positive mode,” says Killen.

Faur says it works because “kids listen to kids more than they listen to adults.”

Often the judge is viewed as an authority figure, however when you have a group of peers saying “you have done wrong, it registers,” says Killen. Since the program began in March 1990, 193 teens have gone through the Southside Indianapolis teen court and none of them have been re-arrested.

“Because we (teen court) intervene when a (young offender) is first caught, we have a greater success in dealing with it,” says Faur.

Killen says usually the juvenile court system deals with a young person when he or she has become a repeat offender.

Faur says, “We feel we are able to help stop the cycle of crime in a young person in the beginning … right at the point where it needs to be stopped.”