Throughout the state, youth between the ages of 10 and 18 who have committed a first-time misdemeanor have the option of volunteering to appear before teen court and avoid having a juvenile record.
Roughly 40 court systems throughout the state of Wisconsin provide the option for first-time offenders, or respondents as they're known throughout the program, to appear before a panel of their own peers.
Nancy Anne Miller, the youth development agent for UW-Extension in Vilas County, was a key player in getting the Wisconsin program on its feet in 1999 and is the point person for cases in Vilas County.
"It's a volunteer process," Miller said. "You admit your guilt upfront and then the trained youth take care of the entire session."
The panel consists of 8 to 12 high school students who are trained to ask specific questions regarding the respondent's experience, decision and personal factors such as their interests and hobbies.
"They then create the sanctions that will hold that youth accountable and help them learn from that mistake and get them some education to better equip them for the next time they have a decision to make," she said.
Sanctions set by the panel can include education courses, community service, writing letters to individuals affected by the respondent's actions or any combination of the above.
"They learn to understand their role in the offense and just because they drink, it doesn't mean only they are impacted," Miller said. "Other people in the community are impacted as well."
Teen court is held once a month in each court jurisdiction with multiple cases going before the panel in a single day.
In Vilas County, the teen court panel has seen as many as six cases in one day.
On average, referrals to teen court across the state are down and Miller offered two possibilities as the cause.
"They could be committing the offenses less or it could be law enforcement is not citing people," Miller said. "So if they catch someone underage smoking, they could give a warning instead of a ticket. We don't know."
Miller said there is no blame in the matter, the numbers are simply down.
For more information on teen court, visit www.wicourts.gov or contact Miller at 715-479-3648.
Jessica Leighty may be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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