Utah teens find justice in peer courts
Layton • One teen decided to snowboard in a city park in the middle of the night. Another a promising high school athlete was caught by police for skipping school.
On a recent Wednesday evening, both faced judgment from their peers in Layton's Youth Court.
Across the state, teens run about 30 such courts, which give juvenile offenders accused of class B and C misdemeanors a chance to erase minor blunders with the law as long as they comply with the punishment handed down by a trained panel of other young people.
"[Once they complete court], the police do whatever they need to do to get rid of the citation. It's like it never happened," said Karlene Kidman, Layton's Youth Court director.
This year, Layton's court is celebrating its 15th anniversary, while the Salt Lake City court has hit the 20-year mark.
"You're getting youth volunteers who are conducting the court hearings and mentoring their fellow peers and trying to help each other out," said Kathleen Zeitlin, program director for the Salt Lake Peer Court. "So you're creating a sense of community and a sense of values and expectations of behavior, and helping kids to make better choices."
As youth courts continue to become more popular across the country, Utah legislators are looking at a bill SB119 that would require any state youth court to be certified, a requirement intended to better coordinate what they do.
"The certification process just helps each court make sure they've got all their ducks in a row," Zeitlin said.
On Jan. 30, the bill got a favorable nod from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee.
If the bill is approved, youth courts would no longer be allowed to accept referrals from law enforcement agencies, schools, prosecuting attorneys or juvenile courts unless they were certified by the Utah Youth Court Board. The majority of youth courts now operating in Utah are already certified, officials said.
The bill also would allow case proceedings and dispositions to be shared only with the referring agency and the victim. But if a defendant does not fulfill terms set by the youth court and the case is sent to juvenile court, the youth court would share the case file with the juvenile court.
'Everybody makes mistakes' • The snowboarding teen was just about to turn 18 when Layton police busted him and his 18-year-old friend for riding in a city park about 1 a.m.
Rather than sending the younger teen to juvenile court for his minor brush with the law, which might have left a permanent scar on his record, everyone agreed he would be best served by the Layton Youth Court. First-time offenders are typically referred by schools, student resource officers or police departments.
When the teen pleaded guilty, he and his mother told the court they were aware of the city's curfew but thought he could be out after hours with an adult.
Not so, the panel of peer judges told him, urging him in the future to know the law and the time city parks close.
He was sentenced to 20 hours of community service and asked to write a list of 10 life goals five short term and five long term. He'll have to report back to the court in a few weeks for a status update.
The Salt Lake Tribune does not typically identify youth charged with crimes. The members of the youth court are also required to take a pledge of confidentiality that prohibits them from discussing defendants outside the courtroom.
Layton's chief justice, Hayley Tomney, 18, said her classmates have been among the defendants appearing before the court. Other times, it might be family.
"Everybody makes mistakes," she said. "The only difference between the offender and me is they made a bad choice."
Of the cases that come before the Layton Youth Court, about 47 percent involve truancy and 20 percent are for theft. Other offenses that crop up include curfew violations, interfering in school, tobacco possession, criminal mischief and simple assault. The courts do not hear alcohol-related offenses.
For the 16-year-old caught skipping school, a recent appearance in the Layton Youth Court marked the moment he made good on a bad choice.
He had been ordered to complete 40 hours of community service. He sewed a quilt, which are often donated to a Kaysville domestic violence shelter, made coloring packets for a local school program, and volunteered 10 hours with his church.
"The quilt looks really, really good," Tomney said. She then congratulated the 16-year-old on completing the terms of his sentence.
Over the years, some veterans of Utah's youth courts have gone on to pursue legal careers, Kidman said. Six former Layton youth judges have become attorneys.
"It's a lot of fun to participate," said judge Shelby Myers, 17.
About 30 youth ranging in age from 14 to 18 serve on the Layton court, which averages about 40 cases per year, Kidman said. By comparison, Utah's largest court in Salt Lake City, which operates six courtrooms every Monday night, has 120 youth volunteers and handles more than 300 cases.
"It's a great group of kids," Zeitlin said. "[The youth judges] are there because they want to make a difference with their peers. It isn't always easy and sometimes it takes a while, especially with truancy, to turn around bad habits."
This alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system and school disciplinary proceedings allows youth referred for minor offenses to admit their mistakes and be punished by a panel of their peers. Such courts operate in 49 states, including Utah.