Sunday, 22 October 2017 20:02

Restorative justice program gives youth second chance

Salt Lake Peer Court volunteers hold a mock hearing in the Matheson Courthouse as part of their training to hear cases and determine what course of action referred youth and their parent/legal guardian must fulfill.  Photo by Charlotte Fife-Jepperson|Three of the youth volunteers for Salt Lake Peer Court pose for a photo in the Matheson Courthouse. From left to right: Emery Hovermale, Kayla Williams, and Jesse Gonzalez.    Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Peer Court|||| Salt Lake Peer Court volunteers hold a mock hearing in the Matheson Courthouse as part of their training to hear cases and determine what course of action referred youth and their parent/legal guardian must fulfill. Photo by Charlotte Fife-Jepperson|Three of the youth volunteers for Salt Lake Peer Court pose for a photo in the Matheson Courthouse. From left to right: Emery Hovermale, Kayla Williams, and Jesse Gonzalez. Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Peer Court|||| |||||

by Charlotte Fife-Jepperson

Jesse Gonzalez got into trouble for disturbing the peace and breaking curfew a couple of years ago. But instead of punishing him by arresting him or suspending him from school, administrators at Highland High School referred him to Salt Lake Peer Court.

Gonzalez, accompanied by a parent, sat in a hearing across from a panel of seven of his peers, who heard his case and determined what kind of reparations he should make. The panel assigned mandatory community service and paired him up with a student mentor.

Today, Gonzalez sits on the other side of the table as a member of the panel of volunteers. He is a believer in this alternative juvenile justice program. “Our society is too quick to label kids as lost causes. Law enforcement should take into consideration that kids will make mistakes through trial and error at that messy time of adolescence,” said Gonzalez. “Peer Court gives kids a second chance. I used to be one of those kids.”

Salt Lake Peer Court was started in 1993 to keep youth who commit low-level offenses on school property out of the juvenile justice system. What began as a program just for West High School has become a statewide program, and many cities and municipalities have their own chapters.

This year, Salt Lake Peer Court has 80 high school student volunteers who come from different schools throughout the Salt Lake City School District. These 10th-12th grade volunteers receive training during a summer conference and retreat and at weekly Peer Court sessions held at the Matheson Courthouse. “They learn a new type of justice – a less punitive one,” said Salt Lake Peer Court Director Kayley Richards. “They also learn about diversity and privilege,” she said.

West High senior Emery Hovermale, who has volunteered for Peer Court for three years, is upset about unfair treatment of students of color at West. “I’ve noticed that my classmates [of color] who are walking in the hall without a hall pass often get stopped and asked, ‘Why aren’t you in class?’ when I don’t get stopped at all. It’s not fair that they could go to ‘juvie’ or fined for something that I could be doing all the time and never be stopped for,” said Hovermale. “I am really glad to see that we have programs in place like Peer Court to help address this, even though it is post-incident.”

Students who get into trouble at school can be referred to Peer Court by their school administration or school resource officers (Salt Lake City police officers based at schools). The bulk of referred students are from middle and high schools within the Salt Lake City School District, but occasionally 5th and 6th graders are referred.

There is a Utah statute that governs which offenses can be addressed in Peer Court. Felonies and some Class “A” misdemeanors do not qualify, such as gang-related offenses, with the exception of vandalism/graffiti. Students are most commonly referred for “status” offenses such as curfew, truancy, underage smoking or drinking, etc. A status offense is an offense that is only illegal because of someone’s age.

The primary benefits of going through Peer Court for referred youth and their families are (1) The offenses will not go on an official state juvenile record, (2) it is free, and (3) youth gain skills through restorative justice practices that keep in mind three stakeholders: the offender, the victim, and the community.

 "We are a diversion program completely outside of the juvenile court system, so there's no official juvenile record if they participate and successfully complete their disposition assignments,” Richards said.

“People tend to think it is an easy way out of an offense, but that’s not the case. We really do require a lot,” said Hovermale.

Peer Court’s model is based on three pillars: accountability, community involvement, and development of skills. “We focus on reform and making people better people,” said Gonzalez.

Instead of punishing referred youth, they offer support. “If a student is referred for grades, we can help them find tutoring at their school. Or let’s say they are hanging out with the wrong group, we can refer them to programs like Spy Hop,” said Kayla Williams, a 2nd year volunteer from the Salt Lake School for the Performing Arts. One of William’s favorite programs is Go Girlz, a program geared specifically for 6th-12th grade minority girls. It helps build relationship and communication skills and offers college-readiness courses.

Sometimes the panel assigns writing prompts such as “Research one college that you would like to go to” or “What do you look for in a good friend?” “It get’s them thinking,” said Hovermale.

Another important component of the program is assigning a mentor to the referred youth. They are usually paired up with someone from their own school, someone with whom they can relate.

Williams and Hovermale have seen very drastic, long-term change in people who have come through program. “I watched one referred youth from my school completely change his mindset; he flipped from constantly sluffing and failing classes to getting “A”s and “B”s,” Williams said.

Because of its popularity and success, Richards would like to see an expansion of the program.

“Over the years, we’ve seen a need to provide a diversion option to youth offending in the community,” said Richards. “Right now, we only get referrals for offenses made on school property. We have begun conversations with the Salt Lake City Police Department to expand,” she said.

For more info, please visit www.saltlakepeercourt.org