Commentary Published in Greater Belleville Chamber of Commerce

"Chamber Connection" - November 2020

By Barbara Cempura, President, Teen Court Foundation of St. Clair County

 Teen Court of St. Clair County is celebrating our fifth anniversary of saving our future one teen at a time. Teen Court was created as a program of the Juvenile Justice Council in 2015. The first Teen Court was convened in November 2015 at the St. Clair County Jail. Trained teen peer jurors heard the cases of first-time non-violent young offenders. As of July 2020, only 16 of the 194 teens who successfully completed their remedies determined by the teen jurors committed a second offense. This represents an 8.3% overall recidivism rate compared to the annual goal of a 10% recidivism rate.

The Teen Court program begins when a teen is referred by the State’s Attorney to Teen Court. The teen acknowledges responsibility for the offense. The teen signs a consent to participate in teen court and the parent\guardian sign a consent. The teen and parent appear and participate in either a peer jury court or in a restorative conferencing session. Both are based on the rules of restorative justice.

When appearing before a peer jury, the teen has a hearing before a jury of peers. The peer jurors hear about the offense from the police report and ask questions of the teen and parent/guardian. After the peer jurors conclude the questioning, they deliberate and determine what remedies should be performed by the teen. The questioning and deliberations and remedies are based on the rules of restorative justice. The peer jurors announce the remedies to be performed to the teen upon completion of the deliberations.

Restorative justice conferencing invites the teen offender, parent/guardian, the victim to appear together. Other participants include peer jurors, community members, teen jurors and facilitators. The conference participants meet in a circle. The police report is read. The teen and victim each describe the event in their own words and the harm that occurred to any victim. Then all the participants and the teen and victim discuss what remedies should be performed by the teen according to the rules of restorative justice. All participants must agree on the remedies to be performed by the teen.

In peer jury cases and conferencing cases, the teen is directed to complete the remedies within 90 days. Upon completion, there is a graduation event where the teen talks about what remedies they performed and what they leaned. If the remedies are completed successfully, the charge is never filed and there is no record of any criminal offense.

While we do not know what challenges that COVID 19 will cause in 2021, the Teen Court program will continue hearings by operating virtually and provide services that help young first-time offenders change the trajectory of their lives.

One Teen Court graduate describes the experience like this:

“Teen Court was a humbling yet beneficial experience given the circumstances of why I was on the other side of the peer jury. Teen Court helped me appreciate the importance of our community and my role as a contributor, rather than a user. Teen Court also helped me be thankful for the program because I was forgiven nor have a permanent record affect my future. All the teenage jurors were very inviting and understanding when I spoke, and that really helped the atmosphere all in all. Most important, it also taught me forgiveness, to stand by my values, and that I should take advantage of the opportunities I have and have been given.”

Teen Court is funded by the Teen Court Foundation of St. Clair County, a 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization. To learn more about Teen Court or to make a tax-exempt contribution, visit the web site at Contributions also are accepted by mail at 12 South 2nd Street; Belleville, IL 62220. For more information call Barbara Cempura at 618 698-1858.