Salt Lake Peer Court Steering Young People to Graduation vs. Incarceration

Tyler Bugden

As we take pause to reflect on the 50th anniversary of the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it is inspiring to observe the great strides our country has made in providing equal protection under the laws, yet sobering to realize that our struggle is not yet over. When key leaders of the civil rights movement were assassinated and our government signed the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the movement did not retire happily, it continued to work behind the scenes in education, justice reform, immigration reform, agricultural reform, and drug policy reform. Although there have not been as many “Freedom Riders” and “Freedom Summers” as our nation saw in the 60s, civil rights workers are still fighting for equality on many fronts. In a nation with a justice system that arrests, prosecutes, and incarcerates racial minorities at an aggressively disproportionate rate than it does whites, the civil rights movement cannot retire.
That is why I am so proud to be a part of Salt Lake City’s own restorative justice peer court. As an alternative to juvenile court, Salt Lake Peer Court works to combat the school to prison pipeline, the disproportionate minority contact with the justice system, and the growing prison industrial complex. Working to bring community organizations into the restorative justice process, Salt Lake Peer Court offers youth offenders the chance to complete their dispositions (sentences) at positive youth development programs like the Wasatch Community Gardens, the Bicycle Collective, or the Youth ARC. At Salt Lake Peer Court, we are not only working to divert good kids from the courts, but we are using evidence-based practices to reduce the rate of recidivism while showing every youth offender that we value them as a talented individual to be developed rather than a problem kid to be managed.
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. The jury of youth volunteers also acts as peer mentors during the completion of the disposition. Using a restorative justice-based, non-adversarial approach, Salt Lake Peer Court provides peer intervention and resources for youth offenders by holding them accountable for their actions and strengthening their ties to school, community, and positive peer role models.
The Salt Lake School District, the Salt Lake Police Department, and the Third District Juvenile Court all make referrals to our program. Over 90% of the youth referred to our program live at or below the poverty level. Without the support of peer mentors in our restorative justice program, many good kids might end up in the revolving door of the juvenile justice system. Although truancy referrals, an early indicator of drop-out and future criminal activity, are most frequent, we also hear cases for fighting, tobacco, alcohol, vandalism, theft, trespassing, and disorderly conduct.
High school student volunteers conduct court hearings in six juvenile court courtrooms Monday evenings from 5:45 to 8:00 p.m., September through May, in the Scott M. Matheson Courthouse. Youth offenders are required to attend with a parent or guardian. Approximately 300 youth offenders are referred to Peer Court every school year. Salt Lake School District 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.
Before adjudicating and mentoring youth offenders, our more than 100 high school volunteers receive initial and ongoing training in conflict resolution, mediation, bias awareness, communication skills, peer mentoring, state statutes, team building, and courtroom procedures. The 40 adult volunteers 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) to gain an understanding of the youth and the offense. The panel members deliberate and assign a disposition which may include programs that offer life skills classes, counseling, written reports, apology letters, restitution, positive youth development programs, or community service. During deliberation, one of the Peer Court panel members elects to be the personal mentor for each offender. The student mentor follows up with a weekly contact, thereby supporting and encouraging compliance until the sentence is completed.
As Salt Lake Peer Court turns 21 this spring, we will continue to provide our volunteers with progressive and comprehensive training, work with community organizations to provide positive youth development programming for referred youth, evolve our restorative justice process both inside and outside of the courtroom, and measure our program effectiveness with ongoing data collection.
Many American scholars have called this era the “age of mass-incarceration.” As peace and freedom loving people, we cannot stand for this. Through our early-intervention restorative justice program, we hope to steer Salt Lake City youth away from a future of imprisonment and towards high school graduation.
Tyler Bugden has been Salt Lake Peer Court’s Program Director since June, 2013. For more information, please visit