Keizer Retries for Peer Court

The city faces financial and staffing challenges in restarting its program

CRYSTAL BOLNER
Statesman Journal
May 22, 2004

Tameka Hill first came in contact with the juvenile justice system in October, when she was thrown off a city bus for fighting.

Hill said she tripped a classmate from McKay High School as she boarded the bus because the girl was sp

It was a first-time misdemeanor offense, a case that might have fallen through the cracks had it not been for the Salem teen court program.

I learned a lot when I was there. I found out doing what I did really wasn’t worth it,” Hill said.

Cases such as Hill’s often are diverted to teen court because the Marion County Juvenile Department doesn’t have room on its dockets to hear them.

Four such teen court programs exist in Marion County. The first was started in 1996 in Stayton-Sublimity. Others have existed through the years in Salem, Keizer, Woodburn, Silverton-Mount Angel and Jefferson.

Last spring, Woodburn’s teen court dissolved after a year in operation. In 2002, Keizer’s court closed because of too few case referrals and not enough money.

Since January, Keizer has been working to restart its teen court. But challenges in finding a permanent coordinator and the resources to keep it going for than one year, have kept it from moving forward.

Keizer’s program

In the 18 months that it existed, Keizer’s teen court served about 50 offenders.

Keizer police Capt. Jeff Kuhns said, “You had all of those volunteers there a judge, a school resource officer, the teens on the jury to hear one or two cases. It just wasn’t enough. We want to get more types of crimes included in the court and hopefully see increased numbers of participants this time around.”

Kuhns has been organizing Keizer’s new program.

The last Keizer court could not hear tobacco or alcohol cases because the court was run through the Boys & Girls Club of Salem, Marion and Polk Counties, which didn’t want to have to offer counseling services for those crimes.

Keizer city officials have said they think that not including tobacco and alcohol cases significantly reduced the number of cases referred to the teen court by the county juvenile department.

This time, Keizer city leaders hope to run the teen court through the Keizer Police Department, adding tobacco and alcohol cases, along with violations of the city’s skate park helmet law.

“It was a successful program for the people who participated in it, but we didn’t feel it served enough people,” City Manager Chris Eppley said about the previous program.

Problems not new

The challenges Keizer faces in securing financing and selecting a permanent coordinator to run its teen court program aren’t new. Other cities in Marion County have faced similar challenges.

Last spring, Woodburn was forced to dissolve its program after the city couldn’t find a replacement for the teen court’s interim coordinator, retired Woodburn Fire Marshal Bob Benck.

Woodburn had worked almost three years to get its teen court program in place.

One of the major reasons teen court programs see administrator turnover is lack of financing.

Teen courts in Marion County rely primarily on state and federal aid to keep their programs alive. But while the need remains the same, states have continued to see dramatic cuts in the amount of grant money available to finance such programs, said Carmen Merlo, director of the Oregon State Police’s Criminal Justice Services division.

The OSP administers the Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block grant, a federal grant that has provided most of the financing in the last eight years for teen court programs in Marion County. In 2000, the state received $3.1 million through the grant. In 2004, the state received just $659,000.

Benefits to the community

Statistics are unclear indicators of how peer courts affect juvenile crime and whether programs like teen courts actually keep good kids from going bad.

But the number of cities and counties every year with teen court programs has steadily risen since the issue was first tracked in 1998, according to a study conducted by the Urban Institute and financed through the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Counties don’t necessarily save money when teens are di-verted to teen court programs because the offenses most teen courts hear are crimes that juvenile courts might not otherwise prosecute, said Larry Oglesby, director of the Marion County Juvenile Department.

However, Oglesby said law enforcement officials are supportive of diversionary programs because they tend to make more of an impression on youth offenders than an adult judge would.

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Salem Statesman Journal