The Operation Round Up Impact:
Kosciusko Teen Court
Recent Kosciusko REMC Operation Round Up grant recipient Kosciusko Teen Court is impacting the community in important ways. Kosciusko Teen Court is an alternative to the juvenile court system for teens who have committed specific types of non-violent misdemeanors or school infractions. The program’s mission centers around restorative justice; it seeks to hold the offender accountable, repair the damage done by his or her offense, and address the cause of the offense rather than simply issuing punishment.
We had the opportunity to speak about the innovative program with Kosciusko Prosecutor Brad Voelz, and Lana Horoho, who along with co-director Betsey Vastbinder, has been involved in the program since it was established in 2018. “We’ve been going strong since then,” said Horoho. “We’re here to serve the youth of the county, whether they be offenders or volunteers,” she continued. “By helping with those teens, we are helping the county as well.”
According to Horoho the program aims to divert teens from the justice system, and they’re often very successful. “The thought process is, if we can address the issue of why they’re making the decisions they’re making and try to teach them a different way of handling that, then we’ll keep them out of the justice system for good,” Horoho explained.
The offenders who go through the Kosciusko Teen Court are low level offenders. Many participants are there facing the music for underage drinking, possession of marijuana, or driving without a license, for example. While they have committed a crime, the Teen Court program provides an opportunity to keep their offense from appearing on a criminal record.
According to Prosecutor Voelz, this is hugely beneficial to both the youth participant and the community’s justice system.
“We’re getting them early. When we say diverting from the juvenile justice system what that means is we’re not sitting them in front of a judge. Keeping them off the record. Not being adjudicated, and not pulling resources from our probation department, who are dealing with kids who have significant problems,” said Voelz.
“Part of the idea of restorative justice is if a kid’s run afoul of the law, that's the tip of the iceberg usually. They’ve probably done things to erode trust with their peers, teachers, siblings,” continued Voelz. “We are rebuilding trust.”
The Teen Court’s hearings mimic that of a traditional trial. There are several roles to fill each year and the process begins in the summer. Horoho and Vastbinder receive recommendations for participants from the county high schools. The co-directors then contact the students who have been referred.
“We reach out over the summer, interview them, and try to fill the roles of defense attorney, prosecuting attorney, jurors, bailiff, and clerk,” said Horoho.
The youth are referred to the program based upon factors such as their character, interests, or certain classes they’ve enrolled in. The offenders who participate in the program have admitted the crime and are ready to face consequences. Horoho says there are incentives to a teen choosing to go through the Kosciusko Teen Court.
“Because it's based on restorative justice, they’re going to get some more focused help with some of their issues, “ said Horoho. “And we don’t charge them anything to go through our program. Most things in the justice system, you’re going to be paying,” she added.
One huge incentive for a teen offender is clear. “The big piece is, that police report goes away if they complete all of those sanctions we assign,” said Horoho.
Going through the Kosciusko Teen Court is a process that includes the offender’s family or guardians. Horoho said they interview the teen and their parents and then type summaries of that interview for the teen volunteers. The volunteer defense attorney and prosecuting attorney get the case information a week prior to the hearing so they can prepare their statements.
“They’re not trying to prove innocence or guilt,” reiterated Horoho. “The defense attorney’s role is to paint it in an understandable light.”
Sessions are held every other Monday evening in the Kosciusko Teen Court (also known as Superior Court I). The night of the hearing, the teen and a guardian arrive. A few local attorneys in the community volunteer to serve as guest judges. Horoho said the guest judges make sure everything is running as it should and can give recommendations if needed. The judge will start the hearing and the defense attorney and prosecuting attorney will give opening statements and present their cases.
When the jury is released to deliberate, Horoho and Vastbinder accompany them to make sure the conversation is on track. Horoho said they will interject or help if they think the volunteer jury is overlooking information that should be considered. But it’s primarily led by the teen volunteers that are jury members.
The offender’s peers determine the sanctions they think will help the teen.
“We don’t always follow the suggestions,” Horoho admitted. “But we always consider them because they've put a lot of thought into what they think might most benefit that teen participant.”
Horo said the teens talk at length about what could most help the teen offender. The gravity of a teen offender facing a jury of their peers is undeniable.
“It’s very valuable having the teen volunteers because I don't know what it's like to grow up right now,” Horoho laughed. “They know the pressures, ins and outs of social media, all the different factors. They’re extremely creative.”
“We’re not trying to punish these teams,” she emphasized. “We're trying to redirect, restore their standing within the community, and help them establish trust with these adults when the relationship has been damaged.”
The sanctions ordered by the Kosciusko Teen Court can vary. There are classes in anger management, decision making, and tobacco education. Kosciusko Cares provides a class called “What Am I Thinking?” that helps the teen learn effective decision-making strategies and reflect upon how they process information. Once the sanctions for the offender have been determined, the jury returns to the courtroom to announce their decision.
Horoho and Vastbinder then talk to the teen offender’s family to make sure they understand the sanctions and what happens moving forward. The co-directors work to make arrangements for the assigned sanctions. Horoho said they do their best to make sure the teen is successful and give them whatever help they might need. The offender has sixty days to complete their sanctions. When that time comes and they’ve been successful, the police report is eliminated.
When contemplating the impact of the Kosciusko Teen Court in the community, Horoho points out the program’s widespread effect. The impact is felt by offenders, volunteers, and the community at large.
“Offenders get to understand that there are people who care and want to help them, and that they are not a bad person,” described Horoho. “You can work on things and make them better. And it maybe even helps them appreciate their community a little more, when we get out in the community and do volunteer service,” she added.
As far as the volunteer participants go, Horoho acknowledged that they’re getting an opportunity to grow their capacity for empathy.
“It shows them; I had no idea that these people, who are my age, and who I see at school are living a completely different life. It also gives them a chance to work on leadership skills, get more involved in the community, and learn more about the justice system in general,” explained Horoho.
Add to that the overall benefit to the community from reducing the number of teens with police reports and helping offenders grow into productive citizens, and the impact is truly eye-opening, Horoho said.
“I would like the community to know that not every county has a program like this available. We are a grant funded program and greatly appreciate the Operation Round Up grant that KREMC has awarded us. We are a 501(c)3, so we do have the ability to accept donations as well. The only way we can keep this program running is by receiving donations and grant awards,” added Horoho.
To learn more about Kosciusko Teen Court, click HERE.