Teen offenders may find themselves working

Youngsters who get in trouble in Sweet Home might find themselves on a work crew and attending a class that focuses on making good choices in life, as a result of expanded sentencing options instituted for the city’s Peer Court program.

The Police Department started the peer court program in November to replace the program cut three years ago by the Linn County Juvenile Department during budget reductions.

Sweet Home’s is the only peer court operating in Linn County, said Community Services Specialist Gina Riley

Peer Court places juvenile offenders in front of a jury of their peers for sentencing for minor offenses, including marijuana, alcohol and tobacco offenses as well as class C misdemeanors.

Court is held on Tuesdays, and the program is handling two to three cases per week, Riley said, although one recent session handled eight cases.

Sweet Home police ran a sting operation recently based on reports of marijuana, but ran into another problem, Riley said. “Kids smoking cigarettes just kept getting in our way.”

Since juvenile smoking is a common community concern, the police officers figured they would deal with that as well, Riley said. They referred 32 youths for minor in possession of tobacco.

In the past, on tobacco, curfew and runaway violations, the Juvenile Department would send parents a letter, Riley said. The peer court provides an opportunity to hold juveniles accountable for the violations.

The peer court started with six volunteers, Riley said. Four of them are continuing to volunteer. The court has seven to eight jurors most of the time, all teenagers.

Offenders must plead guilty to the charges before entering the peer court program, Riley said. The program will take first- and second-time offenders. Sometimes, the peer court will handle a third offense, which marks the juvenile defendant as a habitual offender. After that, the Juvenile Department can take stronger steps against the offender, such as imposing tobacco rehabilitation counseling.

Sanctions include completing a homework packet of essays and answers to questions about the effects and consequences of crime. Minimum sanctions can also include a $20 diversion fee, three hours of community service and a requirement that the juvenile serves on the peer court jury at least once.

Juveniles have the option of rejecting the peer court sanctions, Riley said. They are referred back to the Juvenile Department, which will impose sanctions for noncompliance, a process in which they risk the possibility of detention, probation and visit to a judge in a formal setting. Only one youngster has rejected the peer court sanction.

Youths who have been through the process said standing in front of a jury of their peers makes a difference.

“It’s a really fun activity being here, getting to be part of the group,” said Haley Mendenhall, 16, who has been through the court as an offender. “It changes your perspective. You know how it feels.”

Some said they realized the impact their behavior has on others.

“You realize what you put your parents through,” said Emily Claborn, 15, who also has gone through the process.

Serving jury duty as part of a sentence, said volunteer Calvin Babbitt, 18, he saw firsthand how the violations hurt the parents.

That’s something the jurors hear often: The offenders really didn’t understand the problems their violations cause.

“We’ve had a couple of thefts,” Riley said. “They said they had no idea (of) the ripple effect of stealing.”

The Police Department is continuing to try to improve the program with new features.

At the end of the month, Sweet Home Police Department will begin offering a life choices class, something that has been available only in Albany. Riley, Officer Justin McCubbins and a Linn County mediator will teach the class.

The work crew option started with a project to remove English ivy from the hillside at Sankey Park on Earth Day.

Until the work crew was available, community service was the jury’s main option for sanctions. Community service

assignments have offenders work with community organizations, such as the Sweet Home Gleaners, where they can help bag food and hang clothing, or the VFW’s Vet’s Club, where Shaniqa Lewis, who was sentenced in peer court and now is the court’s first and only juvenile judge, helped roll the flags the club displays on special occasions.

Babbit was assigned to a work crew, he said. “I thought it was actually kind of fun.”

Although the peer court has had community service, Riley said, parents had been asking whether the juries could assign more sanctions.

In cooperation with the Juvenile Department, the Police Department was able to set up local work crews, Riley said. The work crew will complete some more work at Sankey Park, spread bark dust at the Police Department and work on upcoming Foster Lake Trail and Ames Creek projects.

During the English ivy removal, about a dozen juveniles showed up on a special two-for-one deal for their time, Riley said. “They worked. They literally worked hard.”

Claborn said she doesn’t plan to serve on the work crew again.

“The only times I’m ever coming here again is to volunteer,” she said.