VERMILLION COUNTY, Ind. (WTWO/WAWV) — The Vermillion County Prosecutor’s office utilizes a Peer Court program to determine cases deemed fit.
“I’ve been with the prosecutor’s office for almost 8 years, and I saw a lot of juveniles come through here, and… a 13, 14, 15-year-old kid shackled, is heartbreaking to me,” Tia Heid, Peer Court Administrator for the Vermillion County Prosecutor’s Office said.
“I wanted something that I could do to help these kids and make them realize that you can make mistakes and it’s not going to be the end of the world,” she added.
After Heid’s nephew went through a similar Peer Court program in Danville, IL, Heid knew that was something she could do to help the kids. Intrigued, Heid and her teenage daughter and friend sat through the experience in Danville. That’s when Heid made it her mission to start Vermillion County’s version of the program.
“Any misdemeanor charge can be run through peer court,” she said.
The charges can come from the prosecutor’s office, from an arresting officer or even referred from school. Fighting, vaping tobacco and marijuana, underage drinking, and battery might land a kid in from a jury of their peers.
In order to appear in Peer Court, “They have to admit that they did wrong because they don’t have a real attorney type of thing,” Heid said.
A diversion agreement is signed when entering the Peer Court program. The program consists of a defense attorney, a prosecutor, and a jury with a foreman. All are made up of peer-aged volunteers.
“It’s set up just like a jury trial and they deliberate just like a jury would,” Heid said about the Vermillion County’s program.
The offender is questioned. Their parent or guardian is questioned. The peer volunteers are given a sentencing perimeter. Sentencing might include community service, writing apology letters, drug and alcohol classes, and coming back to serve on the other side of the courtroom.
“They deliberate, they give them their sentence and from that date, they have 3 months to complete it. As long as they complete, that charge is diverted.”
Heid said the program is life-changing, for everyone involved. Including high school senior, Kali Stambaugh, who has served many roles in the courtroom.
“Things that these kids have said, the reasons why, the reasoning behind everything, it’s just very eye-opening,” Stambaugh said.
Through the program many kids have learned that they are not bad people, they just made a mistake. Volunteers like Stambaugh find themselves thinking about their future and the difference they can make in the lives of others.
“I want to be a therapist that would be able to help these kids instead of just being able to yell at them,” Stambaugh said.
“It makes me kind of teary and it’s heartbreaking,” Heid said thinking back to a particular case that really touched her.
A kid who had formerly appeared in the Peer Court program came back to volunteer on the other side of the courtroom.
“I make them come back and serve on the jury, that way they see both sides of the program.”
After the trial, the boy spoke to Heid, “He said, ‘I don’t want you to think I’m a bad kid. I said I don’t think any of you are bad kids. You make mistakes, that’s how you learn,” Heid said.
The boy then gave Heid a little bit of his background, asking her if she had heard about a fatal accident that had happened in his community.
Then he said to her, “That was my mom. He said, right after she has passed away, I found out that my dad had three to five years to live. So, I know by the time I graduate high school, I’m not going to have any parents,” Heid said.
The boy went on to tell Heid he had been in a bad place.
“His Dad did pass away unfortunately, but he did go through, and he finished school and he’s doing great from what I understand,” Heid said.