An Alternate Court

Youth can be heard and judged by their peers

Community Mediation Services (CMS) of Eugene is pleased to announce the establishment of its new Restorative Peer Court (RPC) program. Peer courts (youth or teen courts) across the country give youth defendants the opportunity to participate in an alternative court system where offenders are allowed to be heard and judged by their peers.

The overall goal of peer court is to help youth offenders restore their relationships with the community through an alternative, peer-based justice process that emphasizes internal learning, relational accountability and giving back to the community. This peer court model provides elements of socialization (developing social skills, civic engagement, mentoring) in addition to early interventions and appropriate sentencing guidelines in response to teen crime.

CMS’s peer court implements elements of restorative justice theory and best practices by supporting victims, offenders and the community. The RPC provides youth defendants with an opportunity to be accountable for their behaviors and put things right in an effort to restore relationships and heal harms done. Upon successful completion of the restorative sentencing guidelines, youth defendants become eligible to have their records expunged.

Peer courts help the juvenile justice system function more efficiently by handling certain cases with minor offenses, such as minor in possession, theft II or III, criminal trespass I or II, criminal mischief II or III, harassment, disorderly conduct, littering, curfew violation, etc.

Youth defendants who are accepted into the RPC program are required to go through an intake process before entering peer court. During this process, offenders must be willing to admit guilt to their crimes in a show of good faith that they are willing to accept accountability for their behavior. After the intake process, defendants are assigned a peer court hearing date and a volunteer panel of teens is assigned to act as the jury.

During peer court, the jury panel will listen to the offender, ask open-ended questions directly to the defendant, and hear any impact statements related to victims. The peer panel then deliberates the case and is charged with developing appropriate restorative sentencing guidelines that focus on the needs of the victims and the defendant. Some examples of restorative sentencing guidelines include: apology letters, community service, restitution, reports, cognitive development workshops, shoplifting classes, victim impact panels, etc.

Youth volunteers in the program receive training in restorative sentencing guidelines, peer mentoring, restorative justice, ethics, confidentiality, conflict dispute resolution, mediation, civics and much more. Youth volunteers work directly with judges, lawyers and conflict dispute resolution professionals and will have the opportunity to earn extra credit or accumulate required service hours depending on their particular circumstances. The RPC is an excellent opportunity for students interested in the legal system, becoming a lawyer, or civic service.

CMS is a local nonprofit organization established in 1982 that helps citizens resolve disputes. CMS’s Chip Coker, executive director and current president of the Restorative Justice Coalition of Oregon (RJCO) is pleased the organization is able to provide restorative justice services for the local community. Beyond its new peer court program and Adult Restorative Justice Program, CMS recently hosted a Restorative Justice Conference at the Hilton and had over 100 participants in attendance to hear two pioneers in the field, Rupert Ross and Howard Zehr, discuss the history and successes RJ has had in communities over the last 20 years.

CMS programs are funded entirely by grants and the support of individual donors. The peer court has been made possible by a generous grant from the local community and the continuous support of the city of Eugene, volunteers, interns, Department of Youth Services and the Eugene Police Department. The RPC is currently seeking Sheldon High School student volunteers to participate in peer court, and ongoing support from local businesses and the community. — Mat Beecher, M.S.

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