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‘Making things right’: Teen court enters its second year in St. Clair County

Teen court jurors and leaders discuss program

Teen court is entering its second year as a justice program to allow nonviolent first-time teen offenders to be sentenced by a peer jury.
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Teen court is entering its second year as a justice program to allow nonviolent first-time teen offenders to be sentenced by a peer jury.

A teenager who pleads guilty to a minor offense might end up facing a true jury of his or her peers, at least in St. Clair County.

Teen court is entering its second year as a justice program to allow nonviolent first-time teen offenders to be sentenced by a peer jury. Teenage volunteers undergo training to learn how to hear evidence, deliberate and come to an appropriate sentence.

Offenders who come before the teen court have already pleaded guilty, and with their parents, agree to be subject to the sentencing determination of a teen jury. If the offender completes the sentence, the conviction is never entered into the record.

“It’s our job, first and foremost, to pursue justice, and justice can come in many forms,” said Brendan Kelly, St. Clair County State’s Attorney and guest speaker to the teen court training day, held Saturday. “Sometimes when someone violates the law, it also means figuring out how we can restore that person who was injured and make people whole again, bring them back into line with the law so they can continue to be productive citizens. Justice is not revenge. Those are two different things. Justice is about restoring balance and making things right.”

That means that a teenager who pleads to underage consumption of alcohol, for example, could be sentenced to community service, attendance at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, writing essays on the negative effects of drinking, and letters of apology to her parents. Those were some of the potential sentences discussed in a mock trial Saturday, as new jurors went through training to join experienced teen jurors such as Amber Bond.

Justice is not revenge. Those are two different things. Justice is about restoring balance and making things right.

St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly

Amber, 17, of O’Fallon High School is planning to be a lawyer. She got involved in teen court last year when a teacher recommended it as a valuable experience for a future attorney. “I really learned about how court proceedings go, and ways and outlets into helping the community, learning how to help my peers and step up,” Amber said.

Destiny Johnson, a 17-year-old junior at Belleville East High School, said she wanted to help her community when she signed up last year. “People make mistakes,” she said. “It’s not always their fault, sometimes they’re in a bad crowd or have bad peer influences... They can have a clean slate and start over again.”

Dominic Smiley, 16, of O’Fallon High School is a new juror this year. “I thought it would be a great opportunity to give back to the community,” he said. Seventeen-year-old Abigail Herr of Althoff High School is also new, and wanted to give back to the community. “I hope to learn a better understand of the law, the different things it can do,” she said.

Retired Judge Annette Eckert is the volunteer director and moderator of the pilot program, only the third in the state of Illinois. She said it permits young people who have made mistakes from having to pay for them for the rest of their lives, forced to put on job applications that they had been charged with crimes as teenagers.

“It may provide them the job they want, the security clearance they want, the college scholarship they want,” Eckert said. “(For jurors), when you have to sit and determine what someone else might do, it gives you a different view on what you do. It reinforces for the teens who are jurors good behavior, because they see what happens when you don’t.”

Coordinator Thomas Trice, a former sheriff’s deputy, told them that being part of teen court is leadership. “Leaders inspire,” he told the jurors. “The responsibility of teen council is to inspire, to give back, to motivate… It’s only going to get done through leadership and teamwork.”

Only nonviolent offenders are eligible to participate, which limits its use to charges such as theft, criminal damage to property, alcohol violations, disorderly conduct and other such offenses. The offenders are recommended by the St. Clair County State’s Attorney’s Office.

Offenders have 90 days to complete the sentence imposed by teen court, and they must return for a “graduation ceremony” in which they discuss the impact of their sentence. Next month, five more teenagers will graduate from the program, and according to Eckert, only one offender has not completed the program in the last year.

The court program is funded by a renewable $40,000 grant from the Illinois Juvenile Justice Commission as a juvenile delinquency prevention program.

Elizabeth Donald: 618-239-2507, @BNDedonald

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