Salt Lake Peer Court provides an alternative approach to juvenile justice in which youth referred for minor offenses are sentenced by a jury of their peers. Using a restorative justice-based approach, Salt Lake Peer Court provides early intervention for a variety of offenses, such as truancy, fighting, tobacco/alcohol, theft, bullying, trespassing, assault and disorderly conduct; holds the referred youth accountable for their actions; provides educational experiences to assist them in building the skills necessary to change their problem behaviors; and helps them strengthen their ties to school, community, and positive peer role models. Referred youth must admit guilt and must voluntarily agree to attend the program. Referred youth must admit guilt and must voluntarily agree to attend the program. At least one parent/guardian must accompany the referred youth.
Each year, approximately 120 Peer Court youth volunteers are selected from Salt Lake City high schools, and the 47 advisors are from the community-at-large, including University of Utah law students and Lowell Bennion Community Service Center students. During the school year, Peer Court volunteers adjudicate approximately 350 new and carry-over cases. They receive the new cases from Salt Lake School District resource officers, administerators, counselors and social workers; elementary through high school, as well as truancy cases from the Third District Juvenile Court.
Weekly Peer Court Hearings
Students conduct court hearings in six juvenile court courtrooms each Monday evening in the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse in Salt Lake City. Translators are used for families who do not speak English. Many of the Peer Court members and advisors are bilingual, so court sessions may be conducted in Spanish when the need arises. The 120 student volunteers, who adjudicate and mentor the youth offenders, receive training in conflict resolution, mediation, bias awareness, communication skills, peer mentoring, state statutes, team building skills, and courtroom procedures. The 47 advisors receive similar training and are assigned to student volunteers with whom they attend the court hearings to provide support and guidance when needed.
In a typical court hearing, a panel of seven student volunteers questions the youth offender and parent(s)/guardians(s) to gain an understanding of the youth and the offense. The panel members deliberate and assign a disposition which provides educational and/or community service opportunities. During deliberation, one panel member elects to be the personal mentor for each offender. In a separate component of the program, an adult/youth co-mediation team facilitates a resolution of conflicts for youth who are referred for fighting. Peer Court student members and advisors who wish to be mediators are given additional mediation training.
Because of Peer Court's success in dealing with youth referred for truancy, Salt Lake School District procedure continues to require a referral to Peer Court for all students who are chronically truant as part of the truancy intervention program. This district policy is a result of the impact district officials have seen on youth referred to Peer Court for truancy. Juvenile Court also refers truancy cases to Salt Lake Peer Court as a diversion program for truant youth.