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Hastings High School in Hastings, Minn., hosted the first Peer Court in the Twin Cities area May 1, 2000. The program has expanded since then. There are currently seven schools in Dakota County hosting Peer Court: Hastings, Lakeville North, Lakeville South, South St. Paul, Simley, Burnsville, and Eastview High Schools. Many youth from the remaining schools in Dakota County participate in Peer Court as observers and jurors as a component of their Peer Court Agreements. The students at each high school are taught how to be effective jurors by educating them on several issues as follows: restorative justice, juvenile delinquency terms and definitions, appropriate questioning techniques, and how to structure a sentence to fit the needs of an individual.
Peer Court is an alternative sentencing program in which juvenile offenders tell their stories to juries of their peers, who then recommend sentences that may include doing community service, completing alcohol or drug counseling, complete an ethics and decision driving course, and serving as a juror in a future Peer Court. The court was established by District Court Judge Thomas Poch of Dakota County to teach participants individual accountability and responsible decision-making skills.
Peer Court is available to Dakota County’s first-time juvenile offenders and for second-time property crime juvenile offenders. Minors are referred to Peer Court by schools, police departments and probation officers, at the discretion of the county attorney. Offenders must admit their guilt, waive and give up their rights to privacy and anonymity, agree to be bound by the sentence and waive their right to an attorney. If offenders decline to do so, they can be referred to juvenile court.
Court sessions are heard at a high school other than the one at which the offending student attends. Judge Poch and student jurors, advised by local volunteer attorneys, listen to the charges and the offenders’ side of the story. The offenders’ parents, who must attend Peer Court, may also be questioned, as may others impacted by the offenders’ actions.
After questioning, jurors and the volunteer attorneys who advise them leave the courtroom to discuss and recommend a sentence. Sentences cannot include jail time or fines. Presiding Judge Poch may choose to modify the recommendations before he orders the offender to comply with the sentence, which includes up to six months of informal probation. Offenders who fail to complete their sentences are referred to the Dakota County Attorney for formal prosecution in juvenile court.
At the end of probation, cases are dismissed and the juveniles are eligible to have their records sealed once they turn 18 years old.
Jurors are trained with a curriculum developed by Judge Poch and modeled after a program in Orange County, Calif., Superior Court. Teacher training sessions are held throughout the year to help educate high school students about juvenile court and Peer Court.
Peer Court has been well received by teachers, judges, courts, parents, students, and police departments.
Peer Court is a collaborative effort of the Juvenile Court Division of the District Court, Dakota County Community Corrections, the Dakota County Attorney and Dakota County school districts.
A total of 126 Peer Court sessions have been held since its inception in May of 2000 through May 2006. A total of 368 minors and their families have been scheduled for these sessions.