Lone Tree, CO

Lone Tree’s Teen Court helps youth learn empathy, harm reduction

Heather Willard

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Teens listen to Christine Brown-Haugen discuss why restorative justice is an important tool for law enforcement and prosecutors.Photo by Heather Willard
Heather Willard / NewsBreak Denver

(Lone Tree, Colo.) About 30 individuals, most under 18, met at the Lone Tree Civic Center last weekend to learn more about Teen Court, a restorative justice and community accountability program.

The program is voluntary for eligible youth and creates a connection between the youth offender, harmed party (i.e., business owner, homeowner or other party), the youth’s family and a panel of youth peers. Youth cases that are not heard in Teen Court are heard in Municipal Court. A board of student leaders directs the youth-focused program.

The goal is to help troubled youth make good lifestyle choices by taking accountability and helping them make amends and reflect on their actions. The program uses the “Five R’s” of restorative justice as a guide: relationship, respect, responsibility, repair and reintegration.

The program helps more than just youth offenders; the teen volunteers also learn empathy, diversity and other important aspects of community participation.

Saturday, several speakers presented details of their jobs and how other areas handle youth offenses. Participants included, Milliken Police Chief Benito Garcia; Ames Stenson, Englewood Municipal Court Restorative Justice Program consultant; Christina Brown-Haugen, deputy district attorney in the Denver District Attorney’s Office Restorative Justice and Diversion division; and Payge Nilsestuen, a past volunteer in the Teen Court program.

Nilsestuen shared they did not plan to graduate high school, but are now in college, with more plans and goals. Volunteering with Teen Court made high school graduation and attending college possible.

Vanessa Gates, Teen Court/youth services coordinator for Lone Tree, said teens feel guilt from both the punishment and the crime.

“One thing we want youth to know when they come in from getting a citation or a ticket is they have an option,” she said, noting teens charged with felony offenses and other serious matters don’t participate in teen court. “The premise is the teen is not their mistake, and we’re giving them an option to be able to learn from their mistake, repair the harm that they’ve caused and then be able to move on from that.”

Gates said punitive measures don’t address why an individual commits an act — perhaps it was theft due to low income, or vandalism as a way to get attention. Peer Panels, run by the youth volunteers, allow for creative sentences — called contracts — that help teens address the harm they caused and work to understand why they committed a crime.

Contract obligations range from art projects to poems to other creative outlets, allowing the youth to reflect and address their actions, take accountability and engage with the community in a meaningful way.

In an average year, Gates said, about 70 teens use the program. That number dropped in 2019 and 2020 due to COVID-19.

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Public safety reporter in DougCo, Denver metro. Previously: Pueblo Chieftain public safety reporter, Athens Messenger associate editor. Caffeine fiend, cat mom and lover of all things spooky.

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