Teen Court – Youth Court :(

I don’t like Teen Court or Youth Court.

I typically don’t focus on the negative.  I’ve discussed this enough and had enough experiences that my opinion is formed.  I can blog and say I don’t like them.  I will tell you why.

In Wisconsin, when a  juvenile is processed in the FORMAL circuit court process, there is NO jury portion.  Is it LEGAL then for a “peer jury” to decide an outcome in a teen court/youth court model?

In youth court the offender is not an “active participant” in the outcome.  As I understand it the jury hears from each side, leaves and returns with a plan.  I don’t think that works.  What works is doing something WITH someone, not TO them or FOR them.

The requirement that once in teen court, then you serve on the jury.  That pre=prescribed outcome is not taking in account the individual involved.  No matter what you did, who you are, once in, you serve on the jury.

I don’t get WHY we would teach kids to imitate a system that doesn’t work.  I say it doesn’t work because of how many people go to prison and come back home ONLY to go to prison again.  Read the PEW report!  One in 100 adults in prison!  AND going to prison MAKES YOU WORSE. 

Teen Court as a YOUTH DEVELOPMENT MODEL – okay you want to teach skills.  Teach youth how to talk to each other.  Use a Circle of a Conference to give them skills in communication.  Teach youth about EQUALITY, RESPECT, INCLUSIVENESS.  What do we learn in Youth/Teen Court, those with the titles make the decision?  How to act like a defender of the victim, a promoter of the offender. 

When you do a teen court – that’s the only process you have.  When you use Restorative Justice – you’ve got good in the preparations, speaking about healing and accountability.  Restorative Justice options involve conferences, circles, panels.

Sure, it’s great we are ‘diverting’ cases from the formal system.  BUT what are we REALLY teaching our youth in Teen/Youth Courts?  Why can’t we just divert them with Restorative Justice? 

There is the element of victims that don’t want to participate.  That’s a reality.  And it’s the job of the restorative justice practitioner or advocate to work on that element.

I explained my concerns about Teen Court to a ‘Restorative Justice’ program that was doing this.  I don’t see or think teen/youth court is restorative.  The response:  “We had to call it that so the Cops would refer to it”.  That is an example of not being willing to address the bigger system.  That’s feeding into the notion that punishment works.  That is not restorative.

Restorative Justice is about HARMS, NEEDS, OBLIGATION & ENGAGEMENT.  It’s inclusive models, that focus on ‘making things right’ and repairing the harm.  See Zehr’s signposts for more!

I believe as practitioners and advocates we need to speak out to not only our processes but about community harms, needs, obligations and engagement.  I’m engaging in a debate about TEEN/YOUTH COURTS.  I don’t doubt good stuff can happen, I think GREAT stuff happens in RJ.

–down from the soapbox


Classroom Story – by Catherine

Just another example of how circles make a huge difference in the classroom.

I teach 2nd grade in an urban (St. Paul, MN) elementary school. We are over 70% poverty and about the same for minority percentages. I implemented circles into my daily practice last year after taking a training from Kris Miner at St. Croix Valley Restorative Justice in River Falls, WI.

I begin everyday with a talking circle (we call it a sharing circle). Everyone gets to share interesting or important things from the evening before or they can ask questions about the upcoming school day. Sort of like, getting them ready to learn. This gives us a chance to resolve breakfast issues, bus conflicts, or any question they may have before the academic day begins.

I close each day with a “Closing” Circle where students share favorite activities of the day, what they learned, or what they still have questions about. Closing circle is also used for conflicts that may have arisen during the day.

Today a little red headed 2nd grader (very sensitive emotionally) started crying during the last 20 minutes of the day as the class was returning from another classroom. He dove behind the recycling bin trying to hide his crying from the rest of the class. Several children brought it to my attention immediately and then told me that the “new” girl had said something to make the little red headed boy feel bad. The “new” girl had arrived yesterday. My room is the third school for this youngster in three years and the second one already this year. So wasn’t feeling very connected to anything.

While talking to the boy hiding behind the recycling bin I found out that the “new” girl had laughed at his pictures of the early american settlers and called him stupid. Many children in the classroom had overheard the hurtful comment. When I tried to comfort the boy he just looked up and said, “Mrs. Cranston, can we bring it to circle?” I said, “Of course”.

Within 5 minutes everyone gathered for Closing Circle. I explained that today’s circle was going to be a problem solving circle not just a regular talking circle. One student made a comment to his neighbor, “That means this is important.” We passed the talking piece remembering our agreed upon values (which are posted on the wall near the circle space). We did several rounds of, “what it feel like to have someone call you stupid and what it would feel like to have someone make fun of your drawings or other things special to you”. The 2nd graders had powerful stories. One little chubby kid told about being called “fat” at his old school and how that made him cry. The other newest student (has been in the class about 3 weeks) shared that he didn’t know who the victim was today, but he sure felt sorry for him. That was the first truly honest and heartfelt sharing from that new student. Needless to say the committment piece was almost tearful for some as they very seriously promised to never say mean things to someone or laugh at them. One little girl looked right at the offender and said, “You know when you laughed at (victim) you hurt all of us today.”

By the end of the circle everyone had told the “new” girl that they were positive she could change her ways and fix the problem. The “new” girl then looked right at the vicim (asked him his name) and apoligized in front of everyone. I had not asked her to do that. She did so independently.

This process was so powerful because it wasn’t about me, the teacher, telling a student what they had done wrong. It was about her peers looking at her calmly while telling her they were hurt by her behavior today. And that they have high expectations for her in the future. It wasn’t about blaming, it was about holding her accountable for the harm. Crazy stuff from 8 year olds!!!

I believe they have the skills to do this because they practice “fun” talking circles and “sharing” circles every single day. Today’s problem solving circle was just a normal way of tackling a problem for them…no big deal.

Then the kicker…..my newest little boy walked up to the “new” (offender) girl after the circle, put his arm on her shoulder and said, “It’s ok, you will be fine in about a month. It took me about that long to figure it out too.”

Guest Post from Catherine

In talking about Restorative Justice, I share the point of getting to know each other.  The more you know about someone the less likely you are to harm them.  This is also a basic premise of Restorative Justice.  Recently my coworker Catherine, shared the following story with me, I asked her to blog on it for me.  It shows a great example.  — Kris

I have a story that I think is a good example of why connecting to our communities is important. And proves the point….we don’t harm those we know.

I live in a small town 30 miles east of St. Paul in Western WI. There are several rent controlled apartment buildings in my neighborhood. When I first moved into the neighborhood (over 10 year ago), I noticed many of the children from the apartment buildings wandered around the neighborhood unsupervised in the summer time. Since I have an in ground heated pool in my back yard, and am a former life guard, I decided to open my pool to the neighborhood children one day per week during summer vacation. The response has been overwhelming. I have children of all ages show up on “open swimming” days. Many have no towels or swim suits and just jump into the warm water…clothes and all! They are so excited to swim in the pool. Two little elementary school aged girls were regulars this past summer and I was able to spend time getting to know them.

September came around and I closed the pool down. I decorated my house with scarecrows, corn, and pumpkins. One Saturday morning in early Sept my door bell rang. I opened the door to find my two little summer swimming friends. They were standing on my front porch with two new girls. The two new girls were unfamiliar to me. One of my little swimming friends said, “Mrs. Cranston these two girls stole your pumpkins. We made them come back and return the pumpkins and tell you they are sorry.”

Upon inquiry I found out the two new girls had just moved into the apartment building. The saw my pumpkins from across the street. The new girls came across the street stole my pumpkins and brought them back to the apartment building. My two little swimming friends found out the pumpkins were from my house and were appalled that their new friends would steal from me…their friend.

I know in my heart that my pumpkins would never have been returned if my two little swimming friends hadn’t stepped forward to make things right. They told their new friends, “Those are Mrs. Cranston’s pumpkins, you can’t steal from her.” I am convinced these little girls and other children who live in the apartment building are looking out for me…because we have a connection now.

RJ Conferences and Circles

Posting from the International Institute of Restorative Practices Conference in Toronto Canada!

Today I was volunteering at the Living Justice Press, book sales table.  I got to interact with a number of conference attendees.  I decided to volunteer, since LJP will be publishing an upcoming text on Safe Teen Driving Circles.  (two links to other blog posts).

I was approached to answer a question.  “what is the difference between a Conference and a Circle?”  Other practitioners at the table offered ideas and suggestions.

Here our a few of our observations:

1.) Conferencing questions, can happen in the 3rd phase of the Circle.  Based on the 4 stages outlined by Kay Pranis, in the book Peacemaking Circles.

2.) Conferences typically respond to a incident of harm.  Circles can happen for any purpose.

3.) Conferences involve a recommended “script” and Circles involve process stages.  Although prepared questions to use in a Circle is helpful.

4.) Emotional Charge of the incident is a factor when I decide to conference or Circle.  The number of participants and ability to speak and listen is another decision making factor.

Maybe I’ll work on a tree?  Would that help?  Is this a question readers have?  Post a comment, let me know!

Thanks for all of you that visited me at the booth today!


Circles create lasting connections

I was waiting to pick my daughter up from work, one of her coworker emerged from the back.  He’s a young man that participated in a Circle with me 2 years ago.  “Jay” was court ordered to attend, and we had to work to get him there.  His worker and I coordinated his attendance, I even picked him up and brought him to the session.

The Circle saw alot of value in this young man.  He was invited to be volunteer and help with future circles.  He had been in the juvenile justice system for a few different incidents.  One of the Dads in the Circle, whose son was there on his first run in with the law, asked Jay for advice.  Jay gave me his cell phone number and thought he would be interested in helping out.  I saw Jay again about a year later, in a Circle at an alternative school.

When our paths crossed tonight, I saw a genuine interest as he approached me.  He asked if I was still “teaching those classes”.  He also noticed that I had gotten my haircut.  We exchanged a few more thoughts about if we was still in the alternative school and how he was in general.

It struck me that he was so interested in talking with me.  My daughter says he is usually shy at work and doesn’t interact with many adults.

This is just one of hundreds of examples I could give about the lasting connections that come from being in Circle with another human being.

Catherine talks about how much more connected she is to students in her school, after being in Circle with them.  The shared “sacred space” of a Circle really connects us to our own humanity and to the humanity of others.  When individuals give a portion of themselves, they recieve the interconnectedness of humanity.

Peace – Kris