I have been a part of the teen court program in Buffalo/Pepin County for almost ten years and have been the co-coordinator since 2012 serving alongside the other co-coordinator, Marie Ritscher. Our program crosses county borders and helps numerous kids atone for their mistakes every year. We’ve also worked to make the Buffalo/Pepin county program more distinct from other county programs.
I wouldn’t say this differs from every teen court program, but our panelists are a little bit older. We have our teen court panelists which are generally tenth, eleventh and twelfth graders and that does differ from some teen court programs across the state.
The process starts with a referral, which I receives from schools, law enforcement and juvenile court. The offender appears before a panel of three to five, and after the panelists have questioned both the offender and their parent, they discuss the consequences with the offender. If they complete the assignment, their case is dismissed. If unsuccessful, they’re returned to the referring agency and, most likely, juvenile court.
Our judge, James Duvall, is very supportive of the program and has agreed to allow direct referrals to come directly from schools.We have a very good relationship with our law enforcement and local school districts and also with our judge.
The program is replete with young volunteer panelists. Lisowski says they have 40-50 trained panelists currently and get nearly 15-20 new ones each year. Students view it as a leadership opportunity, but also the chance to make a concrete difference in someone’s life.
The sanctions for offenders differ from what people would consider “traditional punishments”. They dole out community service or apology notes, but lately I and Ritscher have tried to cater the program’s goals toward workforce development.
We’ve done some sanctions where we ask them to investigate a timeline of where they want their life to go, or develop a plan for getting to college or doing a career exploration, things that really follow the restorative justice model.
The program’s centered on three main goals: helping restore the relationship with the victim, helping the offender be seen better in the community and helping them grow as an individual. All admirable goals, and ones that can be more impactful when it’s the offenders’ peers handing out the punishments rather than a judge. Getting student’s lives back on track is rewarding not only for the offender, but for the students as well.