In this courtroom, the guilt of those charged was not in question.
Before Dakota County District Judge Joseph Carter took his seat, prospective jurors were told they only had to recommend a punishment for two offenders — both high school sophomores — sitting inside a South St. Paul Secondary School classroom.
“Though it may not look like your average courtroom, for the next 30 to 35 minutes this will be a normal courtroom,” attorney David Ayers said while addressing the 45 students attending, many to receive extra credit for a class.
Now in its 16th year, Peer Court is a joint project of the county attorney’s office, community corrections and district court. Nonviolent juvenile offenders are selected to have their cases heard before juries of students at one of seven participating area high schools. Student jurors are screened beforehand to ensure they don’t know the offender. Meanwhile, the offender leaves with a chance to have the offense struck from their record and are often asked to return to be a juror at a future hearing.
Though the number of juvenile offenders being referred to Peer Court is on the decline, County Attorney James Backstrom insists that the program is still successful.
Roughly 30 students have been referred each year from 2012 to 2014. Just 10 have been referred so far this year, according to Backstrom’s office. That’s down from a high of 109 in the program’s second year. Backstrom attributes the decline to the addition of more alternative programs: county youth accountability programs took on nonviolent cases for more than 700 other juvenile offenders each of the last two years.
In South St. Paul earlier this month, student jurors heard the case of a boy who shot a trumpeter swan he mistook for a snow goose and the case of a girl caught trying to steal a tube of concealer. Both offenders, who were not identified because they are minors, were joined by a parent or guardian.
South St. Paul senior Chance Gilbertson peppered the boy with questions about the time of day he hunted and which shot — his or a friend’s — felled the bird. Then Gilbertson and fellow jurors recommended a two-page essay as punishment.
“I’m an understanding guy and I want to know why they did it. I want to know if they regret it,” said Gilbertson, who first heard about the program in forensic science class. “I do believe everybody should get a chance to be heard.”
Jurors in the second case declared the girl’s friend — also caught stealing — a bad influence. Inside a neighboring classroom for deliberation, jurors settled on a recommendation: 20 hours of community service, participation in a youth accountability program, find a job or other activity and spend time apart from the friend.
The girl, who said she’d one day like to attend cosmetology school, agreed: “I deserve it.”
Peer Court jurors cannot recommend jail or fines. Still, both Carter and Ayers say the student jurors can be harsher than adult jurors.
“I think so often for high schoolers, the adults are doing something to them and this is a case where they get to see their peers judge their behavior,” Carter said.