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Teens sentence their peers in Tippecanoe County program

July 7, 2015

A special Tippecanoe County Courthouse program has jurors, lawyers and defendants, but they're all younger than 18.

The program aims to keep young people who commit relatively minor offenses out of the criminal justice system by helping them to learn from their experiences, the Lafayette Journal & Courier  reported.

Defendants at teen court admit guilt and are sentenced by their peers instead of participating in a conventional trial. The only adult participants are volunteer attorneys who act as judges.

"(As a teen), you always have adults telling you what to do," said Danielle Scully, a caseworker who manages the program. "Coming from their peers, I think it's more impactful. In the sense that it's not just another adult telling them, 'Hey, listen to me' ... Especially being a teenager, your peers and their opinions of you matter very much."

The defendants are typically first-time, low-risk offenders. They're referred to teen court, where they only can participate once, by the intake staff at the Juvenile Probation Department, according to Miriah Anderson, the juvenile probation intake supervisor.

"They are never going in front of a judge. They are never going to formal court. It's all handled informally outside the court system through probation," she said.

In teen court, sentences generally include jury duty and community service, sometimes a letter of apology. Those who participate in the program still have a criminal record of their arrest, but they can petition the court to expunge their records once they meet certain requirements, including reaching age 18 and earning a high school diploma or GED.

Defendants who fail to fulfill their sentences can be referred to the formal juvenile court system.

The program was founded by the Bauer Family Resources community organization in 1998. It costs $35,000 annually and is primarily funded by the Indiana Youth Services Association.

Last year, 82 defendants were referred to teen court.

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