West End Weekly

Publication of the Belleville News-Democrat’s Advertising Department October 29, 2018

St. Clair’s Teen Court success spurs similar 

program in other counties

Suzanne Koziatek Contributing Writer 

   Being arrested for even a minor crime can be a teenager’s first step on a path to nowhere – no college, no job, no chance at enlisting in the military. 


   But in the past four years, nearly 150 St. Clair County teens got a second chance at a clean slate, thanks to an innovative teen court program that allows them to be judged by a true jury of their peers – other teens, who have a better understanding of what might lie behind destructive behavior. 


   The St. Clair County Teen Court was started in 2014 as a way to handle non-violent misdemeanors committed by teenagers who have never been in trouble before, says retired Judge Annette Eckert, who serves as the program’s volunteer director. 


   It has been remarkably successful in keeping kids out of further trouble with the criminal justice system. Of the 145 teens who have appeared in Teen Court, less than 5 percent have been charged with another crime since. That number is down from nearly 6 percent the year before. 


   “We’re thrilled – we had no idea it would drop so much,” Eckert says. 


   She gives much of the credit to the young men and women from across the county who serve as teen jurors, and who fully commit to the Teen Court’s goal of achieving “restorative justice” for teen offenders, as well as their victims. 


   This year’s group of jurors – some new to the court, some with a few years of experience – met earlier this month at Lindenwood University-Belleville for a training session. In addition to jurors from St. Clair County, the session also trained teen jurors who are getting ready to launch a similar program in Randolph and Monroe counties. 


   Jurors must be high school age and recommended by officials at their schools. Teen Court is held on the first Saturday of each month (except August), and prospective jurors must agree to participate at least every other month – Eckert says some volunteer to serve more often. 


   This year’s volunteers, including 45 St. Clair County jurors, took an oath during their training session to abide by the rules of the court – refraining from illegal conduct or dishonesty and avoiding bias. They must also keep details of the proceedings confidential, since teens who successfully complete the program will have a clean legal record. 


   “What happens in Teen Court stays in Teen Court,” Eckert told the teens. “The details must be kept in the room – you can’t even tell your mom and dad.” 


   Offenders who want the alternative court generally have 

committed non-violent misdemeanors. They must accept responsibility for the offense, and submit to questioning by teen jurors, who come up with appropriate remedies. 


   Experienced jurors role-played a typical Teen Court proceeding at the training session, to show how the process works. One young man posed as the offender, who had committed criminal trespass and possession of a marijuana cigarette. Other jurors peppered him with questions to try to get the details behind the offense: 


   “How long have you been smoking marijuana?” “Did your parents know?” “How did your siblings react when they heard?” “What are your grades like?” 


   The group then discussed possible remedies aimed at achieving the three goals of restorative justice – holding the teen accountable, helping him repair the harm he did to victims and determining what he needs to be a more productive member of the community. 


   Some of the common remedies include requiring teens to write an essays or letters of apology to victims, doing community service and making visits to a special YMCA program called Teen Strong, which emphasizes healthy living and smart alternatives to self- destructive behavior. 


   When offenders have completed their remedies, they come back to the court for a ceremony celebrating their new start. 


   After the mock hearing at the training session, the veteran teen jurors described the impact of their service on the court. 


   “It’s been one of the best experiences of my life,” says Ethan Martin, a Mascoutah High School junior who has served on the court for three years. “I plan on going into the Marines, and hopefully getting into the JAG program (judge advocate general, or the legal branch of the military).” 


   Jody King, a junior at Belleville West High School, says her experience with Teen Court has helped her gain confidence that has paid off in other public speaking activities such as the debate team. “It’s allowed me to embody being a leader.” 


   Olivia Underwood, a junior at Althoff Catholic High School, agreed. “I’m a pretty shy person, and through this program, I found my voice,” she says. 


   After losing state funding, the program is now supported by the St. Clair County Teen Court Foundation, which accepts donations.


   To donate, mail contributions to the Teen Court Foundation of St. Clair County, 12 S. 2nd St., Belleville, IL 62220-2016. Donations are tax-deductible.