Fort Pierre area students judge and hand down sentences to their peers through the Central Teen Court program.
Because of teens (minors) involved in the program, Emily Steffen, Central South Dakota Teen Court program coordinator, followed her responsibilities and reported back to the Capital Journal with, “I received the go ahead from administration at Capital Area Counseling Services to visit about Teen Court.”
Central Teen Court, established in 2002, is the adult-court-approved juvenile diversion program for the Sixth Judicial Circuit. Members of Teen Court — attorneys, jury, bailiff and clerk — are trained teen volunteers and returning defendants.
“We primarily receive referrals from Hughes and Stanley Counties, but can receive referrals from any county throughout the Sixth Judicial Circuit,” said Steffen. “It is offered to eligible juvenile offenders, ages 10-18, mainly first-time offenders, who are currently enrolled in an accredited school program.”
“Teen Court is a sentencing court, meaning all youth must accept responsibility/guilt for their actions. This is a requirement to enter the program,” said Steffen. Teen Court does not establish guilt or innocence. The offender must plead guilty in order to be referred to Teen Court by the State’s Attorney. Upon successful completion of the sentence a letter is sent to the State’s Attorney, recommending dismissal of the case.
Why would a teen defendant want to be in Teen Court rather than an adult court? “I actually ask each defendant this question during their initial intake appointment to the program. The typical response I hear is that defendants want to avoid having a juvenile record or being on probation. I have also heard reasons including a desire to learn from their mistake, parents want them to complete the program, and they feel bad for what they did,” said Steffen.
The program receives misdemeanor cases which include, but are not limited to, drug or alcohol offenses, simple assault, disorderly conduct, disturbance of school, petty theft and vandalism cases.
“In regard to our youth volunteers, we have over 25 students who fill jury, attorney, and bailiff positions,” said Steffen. “All volunteers attend approximately three hours of initial training to understand how Teen Court operates. They are exposed to the Restorative Justice model which Teen Court is based off of, court night operations, and also participate in a mock trial. Our attorneys participate in two additional hours of attorney specific training and also receive additional assistance on court nights.”
The results of this volunteer work is a legal and binding sentence for the defendant based on the following principles of Restorative Justice:
What harm has been done?
Who has been harmed?
What can be done to repair the harm?
The Teen Court judges are practicing attorneys in the community who volunteer for the program.
“We currently have five adult volunteers, practicing attorneys in the local community, who preside over Teen Court proceedings. Some also mentor the volunteer teen attorneys,” said Steffen. “The only other adults involved in the program are myself and Shelby Magorien, who is the program’s volunteer engagement specialist. Of course, we have administration staff at Capital Area Counseling Services who also assist in operations.”
“Overall, the program is going very well. Since July 2018 a total of 37 youth have completed the program successfully. The number of youth active in the program at any given time varies; currently there are 14 youth participating. Since its establishment in 2002 ,Central Teen Court has processed approximately 1,000 cases.”
Why do area students volunteer for these duties? “Unfortunately, I can’t give names, but here are their direct quotes,” said Steffen.
“ My aunt did it, so I decided to try it out.”
“My mother used to be a judge for Teen Court a lot so I had to come and wait for her all the time, and I just started coming when she recommended I start.”
“I really just find it interesting what the process for Teen Court is and how it is carried out.”
“I am doing Teen Court because someday I want to be a real lawyer. I really love being in the courtroom, having the experience of a real court night, and getting to try new things. I really love doing Teen court because I find it fun, also.”
“Our longest volunteer has been with the program for four and a half years. We also have a few who have been volunteering for approximately six months. We held a new recruitment training and have over 20 brand new volunteers, one month in to volunteering. We hold new volunteer training two or three times per year, and are always looking for middle school and high school students to volunteer, as the program couldn’t operate without them.”
Typically only defendants and their parents attend the court hearings, but the program has had siblings and other adult mentors attend.
According to Steffen, examples of what kind of crimes have been tried and their consequences include:
1. Underage Consumption of Alcohol – five jury nights, 30 community service hours, 30 personal development points, 10 Where Am I’s, body map about the effects of alcohol, 300 word essay on peer pressure and how to refuse future invitations to use, and a life map.
2. Underage Consumption of Alcohol and Ingestion of Marijuana (two charges for one defendant) – five jury nights, 45 community service, 40 personal development points, body map about the effects of alcohol, 500 word essay on the effects of marijuana, reality check interview with a drunk driving respondent, and four Where Am I’s.
3. Disorder Conduct – three jury night, 20 community service hours, 25 personal development points, consequence web, and parent/youth relationship builder.
The first teen court program in South Dakota was established in Lawrence County in 1995. Since the establishment of this first teen court program, other programs have increased in number in South Dakota and across the nation. There are currently 12 teen court programs in South Dakota and more than 1,300 programs nationwide.