The roomful of teens in black shirts eating pizza, chatting and swilling soda seemed ordinary enough. Except for the police officers sitting among them -- one in uniform, two in plainclothes.
And then there were the four students in a nearby hallway who had run afoul of school rules or state laws. The kids in black were there to decide their fate.
It's called Peer C.O.R., or Peer Council for Offense Resolution. It is a program that started last year at East Ridge High School and already has spread to the other two high schools in the South Washington County district -- Park and Woodbury -- and a few others.
It offers a way for student offenders to sidestep the juvenile justice system, which metes out fines, probation and a youth record. Peer C.O.R. instead addresses the problems that caused the behavior and adds huge dollops of peer pressure to deter bad acts in the future.
"The original criminal justice system was designed for adults and heinous crimes in an environment that is inherently adversarial," said Jean Hancock, the Woodbury Police Department officer assigned to East Ridge who started the peer justice program at the school. "In its raw form, criminal justice is in place for punitive reasons," she said.
More than 50 student offenders went through the Peer C.O.R. program last year. Avoiding the traditional juvenile justice system is a big draw for the students, but the zero-tolerance policies schools have instituted also forces many into it by making school and criminal offenses of things that weren't always taken up by the system.
Whether it's dealing with kids who have skipped school, stolen a classmate's watch or smoked any number of substances in the boys' room, the "restorative justice" of the Peer C.O.R. variety is better for kids than the regular courts, Hancock says.
National studies show that recidivism for teen offenders is about 50 percent in traditional courts, but as low as 6 to 18 percent in youth courts, she says.
"It all boils down to peer pressure," Hancock said. "Kids listen to other kids. They give more credibility to their peers than they do to adults."
Peer C.O.R. day at the South Washington County service center in Cottage Grove is an example. It's late afternoon as the two dozen kids finish their pizza and soda in a hearing room that has floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to a prairie of tall grasses and wildflowers. Soon the group's student leaders give a quick training session to their co-jurors -- about half of whom are former offenders who must serve on the Peer C.O.R. jury as part of their own sentences.
A constant refrain, directly or indirectly, is respect and confidentiality. After the training, Washington County Attorney Doug Johnson stands before the group -- tall, authoritative and square-shouldered in a serious-looking blue suit. He swears in the jurors, witnesses, offenders and their families nearly all at once.
There will be four trials. But they are not trials. The offenders can only participate in criminal justice diversion program if they admit guilt. The trial is all about the sentencing.
They start with a statement of the crime and an admission by the offender. Then the six or so student jurors sitting behind tables in the front of the room take over. The question they ask of the offender in nearly every case is "why"? They ask how the offenders' actions have affected their relations with friends and family and their own view of themselves. There isn't much eye contact initiated by jury or offenders, but when it comes it is intense, sharp and focused.
Barely more than 10 minutes pass before the jurors file out and into a smaller room to deliberate. That takes more time than the trials. The jurors talk about the offenders, questioning whether they are seriously contrite, considering their relationships with their parents and weighing what's needed to keep their peer out of trouble in the future. Then they return to the courtroom and deliver their sentence, which often involves written and verbal apologies, some sort of public service and, where appropriate, random urine analysis.
The sentence comes in the form of what's called a reparation agreement that can be comprised of suggestions from the victim, his or her family, the offenders and their families, as well as individual jurors. The offenders must successfully complete the terms of the agreement or face the penalty they would have without the Peer C.O.R. option.
"I like the idea of restorative justice," said one mother of a Peer C.O.R. offender. "If you cause someone harm, you need to repair that harm."
Gregory A. Patterson • 612-673-7287