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Peer court for youths effective from all angles
by LOUISE R. SHAW
Nov 22, 2016 | 3453 views | 0 0 comments | 289 289 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Kaysville Mayor Steve Hiatt leads Davis High students who will serve on the city’s youth court, in an oath of office that promises fairness and confidentiality.
Kaysville Mayor Steve Hiatt leads Davis High students who will serve on the city’s youth court, in an oath of office that promises fairness and confidentiality.
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KAYSVILLE—It’s 6 p.m. on a Wednesday and a group of Davis High students have just listened to the charges against one of their peers.

It might have been for criminal mischief, it might have been for shoplifting. It might have been for possession of tobacco or for trespassing.

But now it is up to those students to determine the sentence.

It is the Kaysville Youth Court that meets twice a month in the Kaysville Police Station to consider violations and consequences, a teen court similar to those in other Davis County cities. The format of the program was patterned after Layton’s youth courts.

The court was established in September 2000 by concerned youth and adults from Davis High and the junior highs that feed it, the Kaysville City Council and police department. Now in its 17th year, it is run with the guidance of advisors Kim Smith, a retired attorney, and Wendy Bennett, a legal secretary.

Each year when school begins, student members of the new court take an oath of office. They commit to being fair and to keeping what they hear confidential. 

This year, eight boys and 14 girls were sworn in and will serve at times as judges, mentors, bailiffs and clerks.

Students also teach peer counseling classes.

Having a youth court benefits both the students and the court system, according to supporters.

“It helps with the offenders for sure,” said Smith. “We are able to reach a lot of kids that needed an understanding of where they were headed – what path they were on.”

“It also helps the judges understand the system, help their peers and provides great experience for the next part of their lives,” she said.

By choosing to have their cases heard by their peers on the court and by completing whatever sentences they receive, the youth offenders will have no permanent juvenile record.

Other positives are that those on the court not only learn leadership skills, but have experience administering justice. The court also gives law enforcement and school officials a new option for handling violations and reduces the number of cases going to juvenile court, according to organizers.

To appear before the youth court instead of going through the criminal justice system, a youth must be under 18 years old and have committed a minor offense. He or she must also admit guilt and agree to abide by the final decision.

The student must pay $30 and appear with their parent or guardian at the hearing.

Those who have another case pending in Juvenile Court or who have appeared there in the last 12 months cannot participate.

Either party can decide to refer the case back to the Juvenile Court at any time.

Students take turns as judges, bailiffs and mentors on two or three Wednesdays each month.

They hear the details of the case from a police report, then the offender comes in with his or her parents to tell their side of the story and plead guilty. Only those who admit guilt can participate in the youth court.

The youth then leaves and the teens determine the most effective resolution or sentence, then call the offender in and assigns a mentor to work with them.

“If they’re uncooperative, we can return the case to the arresting authority and juvenile court,” said Bennett. “But these are pretty good kids who’ve just made a dumb mistake.”

Kaysville Police Chief Sol Oberg expressed enthusiastic support for the youth court.

“It is a fantastic program for us,” said Oberg. “It allows youth to make a mistake while growing up without criminalizing them.”

Some students would rather face a judge than their peers, and some parents want a more significant consequence for their child, he said, so they may not elect to have their child’s case heard before the youth court.

“We’re more than happy to work with parents on what is best for their child,” said Oberg. “They’re the people who have the biggest impact on their child’s life.”

Some mischievous things that kids used to do are now illegal, said Oberg. Things like shooting a BB gun or riding a skateboard in the wrong place.

The rules have been made to keep kids safe and to protect property owners, but “there are fewer opportunities for kids to make mistakes,” he said. “Let’s not criminalize them for simple mistakes. The youth court is a great component and their peers can help decide what’s OK and what’s not OK and help them make amends or reparations.”

In past cases, a youth who violated curfew was asked to research curfew laws and write about them. One who had a traffic violation was tasked with getting his traffic safety merit badge. One with a tobacco violation was asked to make an anti-smoking poster. One who used pornography was sentenced to write a letter to his family about the man he wanted to become.

Writing letters or research papers and preparing posters to educate others are often consequences.

An information flyer emphasizes that the court “does not determine guilt, but takes offenders who admit their mistakes and provides them with appropriate consequences.”

It provides “early intervention in the form of positive peer pressure that keeps the offending youth from having a juvenile record while holding the youth accountable to both their peers and the community.”

And for members of the court, being involved “helps them to develop and understand and gain respect for the legal process.”

 In all, 51 cases were heard during the last school year. The most common were truancy and curfew violations, others were trespassing, shoplifting and possession of marijuana or tobacco.

So far this year, about 30 have been heard, said Bennett.

“It’s really effective,” she said. “So many parents call us and thank our judges, or come up and shake their hands and tell them what a difference they made in the lives of their children. It’s really a good thing.”

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