A second chance: Teen Court program aims to help young offenders learn outside the justice system

A juror on Mower County’s Teen Court listens to testimony from a defendant during a session at the Jail and Justice Center on Oct. 15. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

A juror on Mower County’s Teen Court listens to testimony from a defendant during a session at the Jail and Justice Center on Oct. 15. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Editor’s note: Because anonymity and confidentiality is a vital part of the Teen Court, the Herald agreed not to name or directly photograph the minors involved in the program.

On a Thursday night in mid-October, a teen boy walked into the Mower County Corrections conference room on the second floor of the Jail and Justice Center, sat down in “the hot seat” and hung his head in front of a jury of his peers.

A few weeks before, the boy had been with friends when he witnessed police respond to a domestic dispute between two people his friends knew. He wasn’t happy with how officers responded, so he swore at a cop.

But the teen didn’t end up in a traditional courtroom on disorderly conduct charges; instead, he entered Teen Court, a Mower County diversion program meant to help young people from entering the juvenile justice system or having a crime on their permanent records.

“It prevents us from turning kids’ mischief into misdemeanors,” Mower County Corrections Director Steve King said.

Teen Court features no cops, no lawyers, no judge and — importantly for the offenders — no crimes on their permanent records, as long as they successfully finish the program. In Teen Court, there’s only a jury of the offender’s peers.

Mower County’s Teen Court started around 1998 and was led for many years by Howie Strey, who retired around 2010 before Connie Branchaud took over as Teen Court Coordinator. While many counties have diversion programs, not all have a program like Mower’s.

“We’re here to try to help and redirect,” Branchaud said. “We’re not here to punish. Punishment in and of itself is not going to accomplish anything, so we’re here to really try to listen to what they’re saying and appropriately steer them in the right direction.”

King estimated up to 150 young people go through Teen Court each year, which keeps all of those cases from clogging up the court system and it keeps it from taking up the time of probation officers, county attorneys and court administrators.

That’s important since Mower County has a busy court system with two sitting judges but an estimated case need of close to three judges, which brings in an additional Third Judicial District judge to fill in several days each week.

Branchaud also noted cases like property damage are settled much more quickly through Teen Court, as restitution is required immediately if owed.

“I just really think it’s an awesome program, a beneficial program in a lot of ways,” Branchaud said. “I just think it really helps the families.”

Mower County Teen Court coordinator Connie Branchaud briefs the members of the Mower County Teen Court on a session on Oct. 15. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Mower County Teen Court coordinator Connie Branchaud briefs the members of the Mower County Teen Court on a session on Oct. 15. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

Preventing the spiral

A few minutes before Teen Court begins, the jurors chatted, appearing relaxed and empowered. Branchaud asked the five jurors sitting at two tables if they’d each gotten a water, adding they’ll need it as they ask the parents and offender questions about the offense.

Each of the jurors was in a familiar place. Each had sat on the witness chair, which Branchaud calls “the hot seat.”

They were each sentenced for an offense, learned from it, and went on to serve as jurors, something each offender must do at least once.

One juror asked Branchaud if she applies for a job, should she say she was charged with a crime, and other jurors ask if they need to disclose their offenses on applications. The answer is no, but the teens admit saying that feels a bit like lying on a job application.

“The question is, ‘Have you been charged with a crime?’ You’ve not been charged with this, because we’ve bypassed court admin,” Branchaud tells the jurors.

That is one of the most important parts of Teen Court: It is meant as both a second chance and a wakeup call. It’s meant to keep young offenders from coming back.

Once a young person is charged with a crime and knows it’s on his or her record, Branchaud says they’re more likely to have repeat offenses.

“They’re more apt to spiral,” she said.

Usually, youth ages 10 to 18, as long as they’re in high school, enter Teen Court for victimless crimes, but the program also addresses more minor victim crimes. Crimes include things like thefts, shoplifting, damage to property, vandalism, loitering, trespassing, minor consumption, possession, possessing drug paraphernalia, and disorderly conduct — which Branchaud tells kids is like a junk drawer, as it encompasses a lot of things.

Some minor assaults also qualify. Branchaud saw one teen enter Teen Court for assault after nudging someone at school.

“We will go through the citations, really look at them, because a finger poke should not have to go to court,” she said.

Branchaud remembers a recent Internet fad where teens filmed themselves carrying milk in a store and then pretended to trip and break the milk open, which if it can be proven it wasn’t an accident would qualify as property damage.

“Kids see those things and think they’re funny,” Branchaud said. “Those are the type of things we don’t want to see them end up in court for.”

Repeat offenses for Teen Court members can end up in traditional court, but Branchaud takes it on a case-by-case basis, considering factors like the time between incidents and how they did in the program.

Branchaud had a 10-year-old for taking a pack of gum from a store, and she later had him at 16 for nudging someone with his shoulder at school.

“We did take him into the program,” she said. “It was quite a few years between.”

The vast majority don’t return or commit repeat offenses.

“I believe it’s very successful,” Branchaud said.

Jurors described Teen Court as a wakeup call, as something that helped them learn and reflect over their actions before ending up in court.

“It helps you think twice before you act,” a juror said.

Once a young person commits an offense and he or she has been processed through the county attorney’s office, the youth is pre-charged and sent to Branchaud’s office in Corrections. They’re not officially charged.

The Teen Court process starts with Branchaud inviting the family and youth into her office, where she asks if they feel they are guilty or not. If they don’t feel they’re guilty, she’ll ask them to explain why. In some rare cases, if someone claims they didn’t commit the offense, she’ll recommend they go to court and talk to a judge. In that instance, it will likely go on their record, because they’re technically charged once the file is opened in court. But the judge decides how to best proceed.

The vast majority take teen court.

Branchaud has seen kids give up, thinking they’re branded with a crime on their record, which makes them commit additional offenses.

To Branchaud, it’s important for everything to happen in quick succession after the incident. If the young person learns quickly that he or she is being offered something other than court, Branchaud said they often do well. If the process takes longer, the young person becomes more likely to get an additional two or three citations.

“If everything works the way it’s supposed to and we get them in right away, then we have a much better success rate,” she said.

One juror entered Teen Court for possession, while another was in for minor consumption. Most seemed to have learned from their experiences.

“It helps you to make better decisions so you don’t have to come back here,” one juror said.

To King and Branchaud, it’s important for former offenders to serve as jurors. The jury has full authority in cases, and Branchaud notes they take the role seriously.

“They really do want to help, and it makes them feel good when they can feel that they’ve given an appropriate requirement or sentencing,” she said.

Other counties’ diversion programs use students from the local high school — non-offenders — as the jury. King prefers Mower’s method, because the jurors know what it’s like to be on the witness stand.

“They know it. They know how it feels,” King said. “They know these kids, what they’re going through.”

By serving as a juror, It also helps them take ownership of the incident.

“It’s kind of a ladder to success I guess you could say,” Branchaud said. “It helps them build their own confidence and look at things.”

A juror on the Mower County Teen Court asks a defendent a question during a session back on Oct. 15 at the Jail and Justice Center.  Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

A juror on the Mower County Teen Court asks a defendent a question during a session back on Oct. 15 at the Jail and Justice Center. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

To start Teen Court, the jurors took an oath that they won’t talk about the program or participants with anyone.

“The main thing that terminates them from this program is any breach of our confidentiality agreement,” Branchaud said. “That’s why I think the word doesn’t really get out that we have this awesome program.”

Confidentiality is vital. Much of the program’s success is predicated on the fact that everything that comes up during it stay secret and not become gossip.

“I let them know that it’s important that we don’t talk about who’s in the program, why they’re in the program, because I don’t, in any circumstance, want to encourage bullying, teasing and I want people to feel comfortable enough in the program to be able to put that guard down, so we can try to help,” Branchaud said.

To Branchaud, the teens need to feel comfortable knowing that what they say, whether it’s something honest or goofy, won’t be passed on to their friends or spread around at school.

That secrecy and a low-key approach are vital to Teen Court’s success, but it also keeps its successes from being widely known in the community.

“Not many people know about this program, and because of that a lot of people don’t realize what a benefit it is,” she said. “All those cases are not clogging up the system at all. We’re able to also work individually with people, which the courts can’t. We’re less cookie cutter with people.”’

 Examining an offense

After jurors take the oath, the boy and his mother entered the conference room.

Jurors then asked the mother a series of questions, like why she thought her son committed the offense, how his grades are, how he acts when he’s angry, if he saw any repercussions at home, if he respects others, about their home rules, and more. The questions aim to get the boy and mother to reflect on the situation and the mistakes the boy made.

The mom told the jurors she thought her son was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was “trying to be cool in front of his peers.” She assured them he respects others and had been grounded. The mother also said that her son didn’t get all the information about the incident and the cops’ side of the story before acting out.

Then, the boy’s mom left, and the offender was left alone in front of the jury, a moment Branchaud says can be intimidating for even the most hardened offender. The jurors took turns asking him similar questions, like if he would take back what he did.

“I think I could have been more respectful,” he admitted.

They also asked if he apologized to anyone after the incident and if he thought he should have. Branchaud asked about his perception of what had happened during the incident and if he’d still have acted out if he had known the whole story and if his friends not been around.

A teen offender rubs his hands together as he’s questioned during a session of Mower County’s Teen Court on Oct. 15.  Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

A teen offender rubs his hands together as he’s questioned during a session of Mower County’s Teen Court on Oct. 15. Eric Johnson/photodesk@austindailyherald.com

“I felt like I wasn’t going to get in trouble,” the boy said.

After questioning, the jury dismissed the boy and deliberates.

One juror thinks the boy thought he was doing the right thing but acted too quickly without knowing all the facts. Being with his friends gave him the confidence to “be a big man,” another said. Another talked about the boy wanting to show off for his friends and the urge to want to feel like you did something right.

“I think you hit that right on the nose,” Connie said. “You get that false sense of security and then you get that boost.”

Branchaud asks the jury if the boy thought his initial actions were just, and one juror said he likely thought they were.

The experience, the jurors said, would teach him not to react without having all the facts.

The boy and his mother returned for the jury to hand down its sentence: He would write an apology to the officer and his mother, he would take a class on decision making, he would write a letter on the effects of disrespecting others, and he was sentenced to a total of four total times serving as a Teen Court juror. He also had to follow home and school rules.

 ‘It works’

After hearing his sentence, the boy follows Branchaud back to her office, where she gives him further details about how to move forward.

King and Branchaud say Teen Court is successful not in punishing, but in helping young people examine their actions and move forward.

“It can be such an eye-opener for so many, just a wonderful, wonderful opportunity for growth,” Branchaud said.

“Even for me, it helps keep me open,” she added.

But King also credited Branchaud for her work in running a successful program.

“She does a great job with this,” he said.

King says he sees very few of the Teen Court participants return to the system through traditional Corrections. Along with helping the teen, Branchaud and King call the program a win-win for families and the county, because it keeps both sides from getting involved in prolonged and costly court cases.

“The process works very beautifully and the kids all take it seriously and it works,” King said.

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