One on One: Ruffini managing Teen Court, growing list of needs

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Pat Ruffini is executive director of the Colorado Springs Teen Court, a program that lets teens charged with minor offenses plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of a court of their peers.

Teen court trials bring together a judge, teen attorneys backed by a pair of mentor attorneys, the guilty parties and a teen jury. The jurors are selected from a pool of the previous week’s defendants.

Some 140 student volunteers hear more than 650 cases per year.

Ruffini took some time recently to talk to the CSBJ about Teen Court.

How long has the Colorado Springs Teen Court been around? How did it get its start?

Colorado Springs Teen Court, Inc. was founded in 1994 by El Paso County Bar Auxiliary volunteers working in conjunction with the El Paso County Bar Association, District and Municipal Court Judges and School District 11 to address the impact of juvenile crime in the Pikes Peak region. It was the view of the organizers that since the traditional court system was able to devote only limited time to young, first-time offenders — many of whom received suspended sentences — many of these young people failed to appreciate the harm their actions caused their victims, the community and themselves and would subsequently re-offend.

The mission of Colorado Springs Teen Court is to use the positive power of peer influence to stop criminal behavior at its earliest stage. Teen Court is a unique and highly successful approach to juvenile crime. In Colorado Springs, the program provides a restorative justice alternative to the regular Municipal Court sentencing for first-time misdemeanor offenders between 10 and 18 years of age. The purpose of Teen Court is to hold young offenders accountable for their actions and to assist them in making better life choices through relevant sentencing options.

What’s new with Teen Court?

While many forms of juvenile crime have declined over the past two decades, the incidence of first-time juvenile arrests for shoplifting, simple assaults and drug violations — crimes that typically fall within Teen Court eligibility parameters — have increased dramatically.

We’ve also started using Community Impact Panels in which young shoplifters meet with members of the business community to discuss the impact their crimes have on their victims and the community — current participants include the Army/Air Force Exchange Service, Best Buy, Burlington Coat Factory, Dillard’s, Emergency Network Security, Hobby Lobby, J.C. Penney’s, K-Mart, King Soopers, Kohl’s, Lens Crafters, Michael’s, Sears 7-Eleven, Target, Walgreens and Wal-Mart.

How is Teen Court funded?

Although Teen Court works in tandem with the Municipal Court system, the organization remains a locally-based, independent, 501 (c) (3) nonprofit that relies on community support to sustain its programs. Teen Court draws its support from private foundations and trusts, local government awards, area businesses, service clubs, and individual donors.

Teen Court has been accepted as a member of the El Paso County Enterprise Zone and uses this membership to encourage donors to increase their level of giving.

Teen Court has recently, through donations, upgraded its IT infrastructure to a server-based network in order to maintain all defendant records and increase efficiency. A database has been created that will allow Teen Court to track donors as well as defendants. The website has also been upgraded to allow donors to submit donations on-line by way of credit/debit card. All IT work was donated by young adult volunteers from local universities.

Is Teen Court experiencing any funding challenges now?

As with all nonprofit organizations in this current economic climate, we have experienced a lower rate of donations from both foundations and private donors. To this end, Teen Court has been forced to increase its court fees for the next fiscal year. Teen Court offers financial assistance all those low and very-low income defendants who are unable to cover the costs of court and/or any fee-based programs to which they are sentenced. Since 76.5 percent of all defendants fall into this category, scholarships represent a large portion of our expense.

How do you measure Teen Court’s success?

Teen Court will have served over 650 first-time juvenile misdemeanor offenders in FY 2010-11. Because their cases are heard by Teen Court youth volunteers and case managers instead of the Municipal Court, their cases are adjudicated faster and at a much lower cost to both the City and the defendant. In addition, cases handled by the Teen Court program allow the defendant to have a six-month deferred sentence instead of the usual one-year deferred sentence mandated by the Municipal Court.

In the 2009-2010 program year, 622 juvenile defendants received sentences in 40 trials, 527 peer panels, and 55 mediations. Defendants performed 11,268 hours of community service; wrote over 673 letters of apology; and paid $41,210 in restitution. (2010-2011 statistics will be available in August 2011)

Historically, 95 percent of Teen Court participants successfully complete their sentences. Teen Court decisions are upheld by the Municipal Court system. Upon documented compliance with their sentence, the charges filed against teen defendants are dismissed. Unless they commit a second offense, former defendants’ records can be cleared of their criminal charges.