Pat Ruffini, executive director, Colorado Springs Teen Court

Pat Ruffini thinks it’s a good idea to let teens take the law into their own hands. And she has the statistics to back up her beliefs.

She is executive director of the Colorado Springs Teen Court, a program that lets teens charged with minor offenses — such as some types of vandalism, property crimes, drug offenses, fighting, theft and trespass — plead guilty and throw themselves on the mercy of a court of their peers.

Only about 6 percent of teens who opt for teen court re-offend, compared with 45 percent of teens who go through the regular court system, Ruffini said.

“We get the ones who’ve made that first, stupid mistake,” she said.

Some 140 student volunteers hear more than 650 cases per year, Ruffini said. On a recent Tuesday, volunteers and court staff crowded into a county courthouse attic to hear 31 cases, including some shoplifting offenses and an incident of “graping.” The “graping” offense stemmed from some teens who went on a spree of shooting grapes at unwitting targets.

Teen court trials bring together a judge, teen attorneys backed by a pair of mentor attorneys, the guilty parties and a teen jury, Ruffini said. The jurors are selected from a pool of the previous week’s defendants, she said. And no, the jurors don’t tend to go lightly on the new crop of offenders. Just the opposite, Ruffini said.

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For less-serious offenses, teens are routed through the peer panel process. Student volunteers talk with the offender, his or her parents and then determine a sentence using teen court guidelines, Ruffini said.

The third element of the program is called restorative mediation, she said. This program brings offenders together with their victims so the offender can understand the harm they have caused and work to repair relationships with victims, Ruffini said. Trained student volunteers run the sessions.

Ruffini said this is an especially helpful forum for teens who just didn’t think through their actions. For instance, a group of teens who accidentally started an outdoor blaze with fireworks heard from firefighters about how the teens’ actions diverted resources from other emergencies, Ruffini said.

Recently, the owner of a store told teen shoplifters that he was forced to let two employees go because the store was losing too much money to shoplifters.

“The program works really well,” Ruffini said. “The kids really start to understand.”

Ruffini admits teen court was a bit of a hard sell at first, but now 95 percent of eligible teens are diverted to teen court. An additional benefit of teen court is that offenders can have their record expunged if they stay clean for a year after their case is reviewed.

“This gives them the opportunity to make it all go away,” Ruffini said. “We are their one shot to make it all go away.”

Ruffini didn’t plan on a career as a juvenile justice expert. She was helping her husband, an ex-military officer, run a counter-terrorism training firm, a role she continues today, while serving on the teen court board of directors. In late-2008, teen court lost a couple key staff members and asked Ruffini, a 10-year board veteran, to step in and run the organization.

Nearly two years later, she has no plans to leave. “Because it’s the right thing to do, and it’s probably the most important thing I’ve done.”

By Dan Cook