Adjudication: Silverton Youth Peer Court gives offenders a second chance

April 2019 Posted in Community

By Melissa Wagoner

Moira Rollins, 15, already knows she wants to be a prosecutor when she finishes school. So when she heard about the Silverton Youth Peer Court last year, she knew she had to join.

“My favorite part is definitely the idea that I am playing even a small part in our justice system,” she said. “[I]t’s fun knowing I’m helping others by doing this.”

Peer Court, which was established 20 years ago by Coordinator Cynthia Schaeffer, is an alternative court system for juvenile offenders who have committed a misdemeanor or violation offense and pled guilty in Juvenile Municipal Court.

“We don’t handle felonies and we don’t handle Class A misdemeanors,” Schaeffer said. “And if they enter a not-guilty plea they stay in the juvenile system. If they enter a guilty plea the judge sends them to Peer Court and they have an interview with me.”

Schaeffer’s initial interview is a way of establishing that both the case and the offender are suitable match for the Peer Court system. A mis-match is a circumstance she has only come across twice in 714 cases.

“I’m taking into account – what can the peers handle?” she said. “But the kids are amazingly mature.”

Peer Court has several components that make it a unique, positive account-ability court system. One of those pieces is involvement by the offender’s parent or guardian.

“They have to be engaged in the process,” Schaeffer said.

The second distinctive piece are the peer volunteers – six to eight students aged 14 to 18 – who act as the Bailiff, Case Presenter, jurors, Exit Interviewer, Interpreter and Sanction Review Panel.

Because all of these roles are incredibly important to the courtroom proceedings, the students go through an extensive training program before each trial.

“They learn how to ask meaningful questions, how to not be judgmental, how to be a curious listener and how to take every single thing they want to know and break it down into a question,” Schaeffer listed.

“It’s fabulous life skills. And one of the biggest things they come away with is deliberation. Just watching them learn that they have a voice, but equally important, they have ears to hear, and learning to communicate authentically.”

Although the trial is presided over by an adult, volunteer judge – there are four attorneys who currently volunteer with the Peer Court on a regular basis.

“Their job is limited,” Schaeffer said. “But their presence is priceless. The parents especially like having that presence there.”

Once the proceedings have begun and the case is presented, the jurors are allowed to question both the offender and the parent in order to learn about both the crime and the situation surrounding it.

Schaeffer said she advises her jurors, “Your job is to look at where there might be disconnect – find where there might be broken things and then offer that opportunity.”

Once the jury feels they have all of the pertinent information, they deliberate on the restitution they will require.

In some cases, such as those dealing with alcohol or marijuana, there are already legal requirements in place, but in most cases it is up to the Peer Court to decide what consequences will influence the most positive actions of the offender in the future. Offenders are also required to serve as a juror in at least two future court cases.

“[W]e are teaching them a lesson, while also sending the message that ‘you are going to screw up in life but you can always dust yourself off and move forward,’” Rollins – who has sat on five court cases so far – said. “[W]e are all human, we will all make mistakes but
that doesn’t mean we can’t come back from them.”

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