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Peer Court back in session

Juvenile program comes back after being victim of budget cuts

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - After a yearlong absence, Tigard's Peer Court is returning to City Hall, April 29. The program allows first-time juvenile offenders the chance at a clean slate if they admit their guilt and agree to community service.In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups, or so goes the adage from popular culture.

This month, you can add one more to that list.

After a yearlong absence, the city of Tigard is reinstating its Youth Peer Court program for first-time juvenile offenders, after cutting it last year due to budget constraints.

Starting April 29, teenagers caught with low-level misdemeanors will be able to go before a jury of fellow students and plead their cases.

The hope, said Lauren Gysel, the city’s new youth services specialist charged with bringing back the program, is that teens will be able to get back on track and won’t have to enter the criminal justice system — stopping any bad behavior before it gets worse.

“These are kids who made a mistake,” Gysel said. “These (offenses) aren’t necessarily their typical behavior.”

The court will hear cases involving juvenile offenders ages 12 to 17.

These aren’t violent crimes, Gysel said. They are likely low-level misdemeanors, such as possessing alcohol or tobacco as a minor, curfew violations, criminal mischief, trespassing, being caught smoking marijuana and some thefts.

Offenders can be sentenced to community service, assigned to write formal apologies or other sanctions. In exchange, they get their records expunged.

“It’s peer pressure in a good way,” said Gysel. “This way they can hear from other youth about why what they did is bad, as opposed to just another adult talking to them.”

Teen-aged members of the community serve as jurors, hearing a handful of cases two times each month.

“It’s a good way for jurors to learn more about the juvenile justice process,” Gysel said.

But this isn’t mock trial, Gysel said. “They are deciding real cases, and these are real sentences. They really get to do something.”

Jim Wolf, a spokesman with the Tigard Police Department, said that before the Peer Court program was cut, it had good results.

“Our re-offender rate (for juveniles) was at 2 percent,” Wolf said. “And that’s reflective of how closely monitored they are and the precise followup that youth peer court demonstrates.”

One criterion for offenders, Gysel said, is that the teens have to take responsibility for their crimes.

“The kid has to admit what they did,” Gysel said. “They go to the court and say, ‘Look, I did it, how do I make it better?’ It’s about getting that restorative justice piece back and getting them better connected with their community.”

At sentencing court, the teen goes before the jury, which will decide a fitting punishment or sanction.

“The jury will deliberate and decide, are they remorseful, or not? What kind of damage did they cause? How did this hurt the community? And then they come back with a sanction,” Gysel said.

Offenders might have to work off their crimes by volunteering at the Tigard Public Library, or complete some other community service, Gysel said.

One mandatory sanction will require offenders to participate as a peer court juror for at least one day.

“They are connected with other youth on the jury who are not involved in that kind of behavior, and they have to think about what would be a proper sanction. It puts them on the other side as a juror,” she said.

Gysel spent years as a child welfare worker in Columbia County and Hillsboro. She wants offenders to realize that their life isn’t over if they do something foolish.

“I want this to be a program where defendants really get something out of it — so they don’t repeat their mistakes,” she said.

Gysel looks through police records to find juvenile offenders for the program, and school resource officers can also recommend cases.

“We had a kid who was caught in possession of marijuana,” Gysel said. “A school resource officer came to me and thought that (peer court) was something that this kid could get something out of, rather than putting them through the juvenile justice system.”

Community saw a benefit’

by: TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Lauren Gysel, Tigard Police's Youth Services Program Specialist, shows off the 'jury deliberation room' in city hall, where teenaged jurors will decide a fitting punishment for first-time offenders in the city's Peer Court program.Last year, the city cut the police department’s youth services department, axing its one full-time employee, as well as the peer court, cadet program, D.A.R.E. summer camp and the community backpack program, which supplied food to needy kids on the weekends.

It also laid off two officers and dropped its women’s self-defense classes.

But members of the City Council and Budget Committee fought to keep the programs going, and the city raised franchise fees on utilities such as Portland General Electric, which helped bring back some of the programs.

“The community really saw this as a benefit,” Gysel said.

The city was able to add back the two officer positions, peer court and cadet program.

The community backpack program was also able to continue, though its ties to the police department were cut.

With any luck, Gysel said, the police department will be able to add back some of those other programs as well.

“We’ll see what else I can do,” she said. “My instruction was to start here with Peer Court, and once it’s up and running, we’ll see what else we can do.”

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