Teenagers in Vermillion who get arrested for skipping school or underage drinking now have the ability to steer clear of the usual fines and appearances before a judge.
Teen Court is a type of diversion program in which people under the age of 18 appear before a jury of their peers to answer for truancy, petty theft or other minor violations of the law. The prosecutor and defense are also teenagers, the “judge” is an attorney and the bailiff is a local law enforcement officer.
The court will be managed by the Boys and Girls Club, which received a grant from the South Dakota Teen Court Association that will fund the Vermillion court for its first two years. There are 12 other Teen Courts in the state, including ones in Yankton and Sioux Falls.
Alexis Tracy, the state’s attorney for Clay County, said the point of Teen Court is to provide a more productive alternative for young defendants.
“It’s basically a court run by teens for teens,” Tracy said. “The goal is to provide a positive impact and change behaviors for the kids who come into Teen Court.”
Most smaller cases will be eligible to be routed through Teen Court, Tracy said. Her office will be making the calls about which cases go through Teen Court and which don’t.
“Anything that’s not a violent offense, it would be in our discretion at the state’s attorney office to do Teen Court instead,” Tracy said.
One of the biggest targets for Teen Court is truancy, Tracy said. Teenagers are usually ordered to pay a fine for skipping school, but nothing else happens – Tracy said fines might not be the best way to handle truancy.
“Lots of times, kids won’t have the money to pay the fine, and it’s not really looking to change the behavior,” she said. “What we want to do is get them back into school, maybe try to establish why they’re not going to school.”
As part of the process, teenagers are often asked to give apologies for the crime they’ve committed, usually to their parents. The sentences handed down can vary, but the teenagers on the jury are encouraged to come up with creative ideas, like community service or writing an essay.
“They could be ordered to go for a walk with their mom, once a week, for however long,” Tracy said. “Those are things that aren’t going to be ordered in a regular court, but they’re building those relationships.”
Paul Pederson, a corporal with the Clay County Sheriff’s Office who will serve as bailiff of Teen Court, said this isn’t the first time Vermillion has had Teen Court. More than 10 years ago, USD law students ran a version of Teen Court, which ended when the law students graduated and no one took their place.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen one, but what I remember from what I saw back then was, it did work,” he said. “The recidivism rate dropped on a lot of things, like truancy.”
Pederson said because the defendants may know the jurors personally and see them in school, going through the court will foster “positive peer pressure,” encouraging the defendants to attend school or curb their negative behaviors.
“It’s more kids helping kids deal with those issues,” he said.
Vanessa Merhib, executive director of the Boys and Girls Club in Brookings, said individuals who go through Teen Courts generally see better outcomes than those who go through regular court.
“Across the state of South Dakota, recidivism for juvenile crimes is around 40 percent, and for Teen Court, every year the highest it’s been is 10 percent,” she said.
Because of the high degree of success of the courts, Merhib said it’s a good investment for a community.
Curt Cameron, the Vermillion High School principal, said the administration thinks the court will have a positive impact on the school.
“We think this is going to be a good thing,” Cameron said. “With all the research that we’ve seen from the other schools that have implemented it, we’ve seen some really positive things come about of it.”
Kyle Kleinschmidt volunteers his time as a defense attorney for Teen Court in Yankton.
“I used to always want to go into criminal justice and law enforcement, and I thought Teen Court would give me a good step into that position, and so I know the reason youth are doing what they’re doing, in breaking the law,” he said. “And the second reason is, just because I always wanted to help out.”
Although Kleinschmidt has since decided to change his career path and pursue business instead, he said Teen Court has been a good experience.
Most of the cases that Kleinschmidt has seen have been truancy, with a few underage drinking cases in the summer. Many of the truancy cases, he said, were simply students who didn’t feel like attending school or getting out of bed, or who were having too much fun with their friends to go to school.
“It teaches them that, you don’t need to be doing the stuff that you’re doing and to get on the right track too,” he said.