Punished By Peers

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POSTED: Wednesday, April 15, 2009 --- 8:30 p.m.

A new look at justice has juvenile criminals in the Madison area answering not to a judge, but to a teenage jury of their peers.

It's worked so well in some parts of the city the program is expanding.

It's a scene playing out all to often for teenagers in the Madison area, arrests, fines and jail time.

Last year police in Dane County handed over more than 3-thousand tickets to juveniles.

The new problem solvers are their peers.

Whitley House says, "We can relate to them better."

The Dane County Timebank Youth Court is expanding to South Madison.

The program allows teens guilty of things like disorderly conduct, possession of marijuana or underage drinking an alternative to the regular court process.

In a lot of these cases the teenagers have two choices. They can go to Youth Court or they can end up in the back of a police car."

At youth court their case is heard by a jury of their peers.

Court Coordinator Lorrie Hurckes says, "It's a lot different for a teen to be answering to other teens than for a teen to be answering to an authority figure."

On this day the students are plowing through police reports on fights and students caught smoking marijuana.

17-year-old Juror Brittany McKennie says, "Hearing it from your peers is like, we understand what you're going through and that's why we're here to help you and we understand people get in trouble and there is going to be some kind of consequence."

Once they have the background information the jury meets the guilty party face to face and gets answers to their questions before deciding a punishment. They'll hand out anything from community service to classes with a life skills councilor.

If that sentence is completed the arrest never appears on the teens record.

Juror Michael Dupor says, "So far it seems like people that we've been talking to, it's helped them through the stuff. "

At Lafollette alone police say suspensions, battery and other disturbances are already down 50-percent from last year, thanks in part to keeping kids out of the system and in their community.

One officer at the school says Youth Court is often tougher than criminal court because the guilty teens have to answer to people they see every day.

Of the 62 sentences that had run their course through March, 51 had been successfully completed with many others still in progress.