It is already late in the evening and a peer court consisting of four teenage boys is so excited it is hard for them to sit still for an interview. Few hour session as a court has been successful. All the cases they have covered so far have been different and that makes this work interesting, says 16 year old court member Asser Blomerus.
He and other members of the peer court have faced several youth under 15, who have gotten into trouble. The model for peer court comes from the US and the first in Helsinki meets in Itäkeskus once a month. There is another court in planning, and hopefully having also girls as court members. The peer court system in Helsinki was brought to Finland and developed by the We Foundation Migrant Youth Helsinki.
The cases that the peer court handles are chosen by the police. They can be for example misdemeanor or minor violence. Police does not question those under 15, as they are not fully liable under civil law. At best peer court is a fast way to react to juvenile delinquency. At best the young person is in front of a peer court in a week after the police report. The peer court listens and strives to understand the choices that have lead the youth to trouble. It is equally important that a concrete consequence follows the offence. That can be anything from an apology to working to pay back the damage caused.
A peer court member has to empathize
19 year old Abdultawab Qaderzada has been part of the first peer court already from the planning stage. He emphasizes that the peer court is not there to judge.
“In one case I got the feeling that this was the first time anyone had really listened to the youth. It might be that several adults have looked into his situation, but many have been quick to point a finger or just listen to those that do so. There is a barrier that we have get through, but as we open the case and the consequences, the youth will start to feel more secure. And we also share some of our own experiences in a similar situation, so it builds trust.”
18 year old Ghaith Al-Shahmani says that it is important to empathize with the delinquent in order to make a real change in his behavior.
“You have to create a safe atmosphere to reach his emotions. We ask who he has offended and make him for example see what this has caused to his parents. Usually the youth realizes, that after what he has done the only way to repair anything is by changing attitude.”
It takes skills to make a young person open up in front of a peer court, says 17 year old Mohamed Abdulkadir.
“We build the case bit by bit with questions. Usually they warm up and start telling the truth. It might be that the whole story changes. Usually, when the parents leave the room, the youth will start telling more. When the parents return, the youth is ready to tell the same to them. It is a relief for the parents as well.”
Peer to peer matters
There are adults present in the peer court sessions: guardian of the offender and the police, but it is the peer court members that take the lead. It makes a difference that there is another young person behind the table, says Mohamed Abdulkadir.
“Most of the young persons who walk in are pretty shy. Even if in the police report gives the impression that they are quite tough, here they come with their heads down. It matters that we are of same age and understand his problems. We can empathize, be there with him and really listen. We understand why things might have started. “
It helps the peer court members that they themselves might have been in situations, where they have reacted in the wrong way. Still it is not easy to really to the bottom of the cases, says Mohamed Abdulkadir. Abdultawab Qaderzada agrees.
”We have seen many different backgrounds here. There are youth from different schools and different circle of friends. You can never say there is one clear reason for the offences. Each case is its own challenge.”
The police feedback from the peer court has been excellent. Relapses after peer court have been few: In Helsinki almost all cases have been the first and last offences. Also the peer court members take their responsibility seriously, says 16 year old Asser Blomerus.
“For me personally this is a big thing. Even if in the past there have been situations, where I have not done the right thing, now I think I have to behave straight, as I want to keep being a member in the peer court.”
Editor: Anna Gustafsson