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St. Croix Valley Youth Court

Participating in a mock Youth Court trial were from left, Peter Close as the moderator, Pat Bowers as the bailiff and Brooke Brokaw as the respondent or defendant. Brokaw also serves as co-chairman of the Youth Court advisory board with her father, Andy Brokaw. Photo by Meg Heaton

A fresh group of teen volunteers gave up their Saturday last week for training to become part of the St. Croix Valley Youth Court.

The court has been in business since 2006 and has heard close to 60 cases during that time. It is an option offered by municipal court judges to first-time juvenile offenders who admit their guilt and are willing to accept responsibility for their actions. They agree to abide by sanctions imposed by the court, which is made up of their peers who are trained participants. Teens appearing before the court also agree to serve as a Youth Court juror.

According to Nancy Anne Miller, UW-Extension youth development agent for Vilas County, the 40-plus youth Ccurts across the state benefit both the teen offenders and the volunteer participants.

"For the volunteers, it is an opportunity to develop leadership, communications and decision-making skills. It is also a chance to give back to their community and to understand what life is like for peers and their families outside of their circle of friends," said Miller.

She said the program also stresses the importance of confidentiality in maintaining the integrity of the Youth Court. Volunteers all take an oath promising they will keep any and all information associated with the court confidential.

Miller says the teens who opt to go to Youth Court learn firsthand about "restorative justice" and get sanctions that not only provide restitution but make sense in relation to their offense.

Offenses include disorderly conduct, curfew violations, shoplifting, underage consumption of alcohol, and possession of tobacco, marijuana, other substances, drug paraphernalia or a concealed knife.

"The (Youth Court) experience helps teens understand the impact of a bad decision -- that it just doesn't affect them but has broader implications," said Miller. "After working with this program over the years, it is clear to me that this experience can change their thinking and impact the rest of their lives as well as that of their families."

Once an offender has agreed to go to Youth Court, the teen and their parent participate in an interview and orientation. The teen or respondent then meets with an advocate, one of the teen volunteers who gets their story.

The Youth Court also includes a community advocate who acts like the prosecutor in the case and a jury made up of other teens. An adult volunteer acts as moderator to ensure that Youth Court procedures are followed for everyone involved.

In Hudson, Youth Court is held in the municipal court room located above the library at 911 Fourth St. The advocates question the respondent. Because guilt has already been admitted, the questions are more about the respondent themselves and the circumstances surrounding the offense.

The Youth Court wants to know why the respondent did what they did, what they were thinking when they did it and what were the consequences. In addition to that information, advocates want to know how the respondent spends their time, what they are interested in and what they have learned from the experience.

The answers to the questions help the jury decide what the respondent should be asked to do in order to make up for the offense. The idea, according to Corrie Briggs, the volunteer coordinator of the St. Croix Valley Youth Court, is to make the sanctions meaningful to the respondent. Sanctions often include community service, and jurors try to find opportunities where respondents can serve doing something that interests them or that they are already involved in.

Joe Gresback, 16, a sophomore at River Falls High School, has been involved in Youth Court since it began. In addition to learning about how the court system works, Gresback said participating in the court sessions has helped him understand why some teens do the things they do even when they know they are wrong. He also believes they get the message the Youth Court is trying to send.

"I think most of them understand that it isn't just about punishment but more about taking responsibility and learning from your mistake and moving on."

Brooke Brokaw, 16, is a freshman at Hudson High School and also serves as the co-chairman of the court advisory board with her dad, Andy. She wants to be a lawyer and that's why she originally volunteered three years ago. But she has learned more than she bargained for. She agrees with Gresback that most kids get what Youth Court is about. It has also helped her understand the role of family in the decisions, both good and bad, that teens make.

"A lot of what they are thinking comes from the home. I think that's why it is important to ask them about their home life and to talk to their parents." Parents are also questioned in Youth Court.

Brokaw said that her experience as a Youth Court volunteer has taught her that teens can make a difference in their community. "It is more than just us learning about leadership and the courts. This is something that I know benefits my community and something we can all grow from through the experience."

Briggs said the Youth Court is in need of funding to help offset the cost of program administration and training and can always use more volunteers, both teen and adult.

Miller said the St. Croix Youth Court works because the message is about learning from mistakes, not just punishment. "It is about helping, not judging. Let's learn from this, deal with it and move on."

For more information about St. Croix Youth Court, to volunteer or make a donation call (715) 781-0409.

Meg Heaton

Meg Heaton has been a reporter with the Hudson Star Observer since 1990. She has a bachelor’s degree in anthropology and Native American Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire.

(715) 808-8604