St. Clair County Teen Court continues to make a difference in the lives of teens. In ceremonies Saturday at the St. Clair County Jail, the peer jury program celebrated its 100th graduate. The program completes its landmark third year October 31.
St. Clair County State’s Attorney Brendan Kelly praised the accomplishments of the program, which is based on a restorative justice concept. Kelly said he is very impressed with the recidivism rate in the program of less than six percent. The program’s recidivism goal was ten percent, so it is clearly surpassing its goals and greatly easing the burden on St. Clair County’s juvenile justice system, thereby saving taxpayers money. The Teen Court is originally the product of the St. Clair County Juvenile Justice Council and is still a member of the council. The program was pioneered locally by retired Circuit Judge Annette Eckert, a faculty member and recruiter in the Criminal Justice Department at Lindenwood University-Belleville. Zabell Norsigian Vartanian, a former Lindenwood University adjunct education professor, is the court’s administrator.
Overall, 13 high schools from St. Clair County support the program by providing peer jurors who are trained in restorative justice practices. Once trained, these peer jurors listen to the individual teen offenders’ charges, deliberate and determine sentencing. Punishment can include letters of apology, vision boards, community service, counseling, and serving as a future peer juror.
Only non-violent, first time offenders are allowed to participate in Teen Court. Each individual has 90 days to complete their sentence. Once completed, the person returns to court for a graduation ceremony and the charge is never filed. However, Teen Court is a one-time only option — meaning, if the individual violates the law again, they cannot return to Teen Court.
Court is held once a month at the St. Clair County Jail classrooms. Two courts are held simultaneously due to the volume of cases. Retired judges serve as moderators and adult volunteers are involved with the program.
In addition, the program has a comprehensive manual containing all the forms and processes used from the outset of Teen Court. Eckert and Vartanian, the Teen Court administrator, co-authored the manual, titled “Implementing Teen Courts: A Restorative Justice Peer Jury Guide and Manual.” An on-line version of the document at can be found at "http://www.law.siu.edu/_common/documents/teen-court-manual.pdf". A hard copy of the manual may be ordered from: St. Clair County Teen Court Foundation, 12 S. 2nd Street, Belleville, IL 62220.
For the past three years, the Teen Court program received grants from the statewide Illinois Juvenile Justice Council. Despite its success, state funding for the Teen Court program was eliminated as of July 2017. Currently, Teen Court is financially supported by the Teen Court Foundation of St. Clair County, a non-profit corporation recognized by the IRS as a tax deductible charity. Contributions to the Foundation may be made to TCFSCC, 12 South Second Street, Belleville, Illinois 62220.