The Power of Positive Peer Pressure

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Attorneys at Miller & Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee work alongside Chattanooga Youth Court, helping reduce crime and saving the community money through restorative justice.

Teams of students work in small groups to prepare their cases.

Teams of students work in small groups to prepare their cases.

When a young person makes a mistake or does something wrong, oftentimes the knee-jerk reaction is to punish him or her. But when it comes to first-time, nonviolent offenses, locking up a young man or young woman in a juvenile detention center or residential program has proven largely ineffective when it comes to preventing recidivism, or repeat offenses.

The newly-launched Chattanooga Youth Court is setting the stage for restorative justice to supplement the work of the Hamilton County Juvenile Court System and for first-time, nonviolent offenses, the power of something as simple as “peer pressure” is proving a much more effective deterrent against future problems with the law.

Mass Incarceration Is Big Business, Especially In The South

According to a report by the Washington Post earlier this year, “in many parts of America, particularly the South, there are more people living in prisons than on college campuses.”

It has been reported that the United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world, just over 2.3 million to be exact, according to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics. And more youth in the United States—around 70,000 juveniles nationwide—are living behind bars at detention facilities or residential programs than in any other country in the world.

Around 40 percent of those youth incarcerated in the United States are living in privatized, for-profit juvenile detention centers. Corrections Corporation of America is one of the country’s largest private prison operators, headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee, and manages over 67 facilities nationwide with revenues exceeding $1.7 billion each year.

In the face of these staggering statistics and private prison revenues, the research is showing that juvenile incarceration might be profitable, but it is not the answer to ending crime.

The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) released a study in 2012 that concluded, “Long-term incarceration does not reduce the likelihood that serious youth offenders will reoffend.  The evidence points to the contrary; that for lower-level offenders, longer stays in institutions will increase reoffending rates.  Community-based interventions and services like substance-abuse programs are much more effective at improving long-term outcomes for youthful offenders.

Chattanooga Youth Court Applies Positive Peer Pressure Through Community-based Restorative Justice

The concept of “Restorative Justice” is not new to juvenile justice in Hamilton County and Chattanooga, Tennessee. Since 2002, the Victim Offender Reconciliation Program (VORP) has been actively engaged in mediating reconciliation between youth offenders and the victims of their non-violent crimes. VORP boasts a 97 percent success rate in preventing any repeat offenses, and following restitution for their crime, the youth offenders’ records are expunged and they are given a second chance at life.

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Volunteer attorneys from Miller & Martin and BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee oversee the Youth Court program.

Having launched just one year ago, the Chattanooga Youth Court is paving the way for a new form of community-based, restorative justice for first-time, nonviolent offenders that is making an impact on the student leaders who are participating in the program as well as the team of volunteer attorneys from Miller & Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee who are overseeing the program.

What makes the newly launched Chattanooga Youth Court different from other forms of restorative justice is the addition of a third factor to the victim and offender equation to include: the community. In this case, the youth offender’s own community of peers helps facilitate the mediation process in a Youth Court setting, complete with a judge, jury, the “Respondent” (Defendant) and “The Community” (Prosecution).

Miller & Martin Partner and Chattanooga Youth Court Director Randy Wilson says, “It’s a powerful program for the youth because a group of their peers is telling them what to do as opposed to a fifty-year-old judge. We certainly appreciate how strong peer pressure is and especially the effect it has on teenagers, and we believe that is what makes the difference.”

Education With a Real Life Impact

Chattanooga Youth Court Director and Miller & Martin attorney, Randy Wilson.

Chattanooga Youth Court Director and Miller & Martin attorney, Randy Wilson.

Coming from Chattanooga School for the Arts and Sciences (CSAS), East Ridge High School, Lookout Valley, Tyner Academy, and Signal Mountain High School, students participating in the Chattanooga Youth Court represent a diversity of schools from across Hamilton County.

The Chattanooga Youth Court meets for one or two sessions each month, depending on the caseload, and they hear cases referred to them by the Hamilton County Juvenile Court. The student leadership team is sworn to confidentiality and they work closely with volunteer attorneys from Miller & Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee who guide the students through the court proceedings and choosing a means of restitution.

“It has been fun to see the students grow in their comfort level and arguments,” shares Wilson. “We’ve watched them go from being scared to death to speak to now having to rein them in. It’s been a great real life experience for them and helps build their life skills, public speaking skills, analytical skills, and prepares them to face life’s problems.”

Once the student jurors or judge makes a decision, restitution can range from community service or counseling to making written or oral apologies to tutoring other students or going through drug counseling services. After a youth offender has righted his or her wrong, the volunteer attorneys then work with officials at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court to expunge the youth offender’s record, paving the way for a new start.

A Growing Grassroots Movement for Community-based, Restorative Justice

When the Chattanooga Youth Court first launched in Spring 2014, Denise Bentley with the Tennessee Bar Association, shared in an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press that fewer than seven percent of respondents who participate in Tennessee youth courts re-offend within a year, the national average is between six and
nine percent.

Building on that level of success, the newly established Chattanooga Youth Court joins 16 other programs in the State of Tennessee and the Restorative Justice model appears to be growing in cities across the nation, with over 1,050 programs in 49 states, according to the National Association of Youth Courts.

Instead of locking up first-time, nonviolent offenders, which may increase their chances of repeating crimes, community-based, restorative justice programs like the Chattanooga Youth Court are applying the right kind of peer pressure to help young people stop bad choices in their tracks, and restart good choices for a better future.

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Writer Melissa Turner is actively involved in community development and the city of Chattanooga.

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