Teen Court

Day in Court

By Bruce Robinson

IT WAS LIKE being a little kid,” confesses Jacob, although he clearly is anything but a kid. A lanky, mustachioed 17-year-old, Jacob is sitting in the witness chair in a courtroom adjacent to the Sonoma County Jail, recalling in a soft, halting voice the afternoon he and his girlfriend smashed the windows out of another girl’s car. The vandalism was meant to prove to his girlfriend that he was not two-timing her with the car’s owner.

“It was a stupid thing to do,” Jacob murmurs.

Listening intently from the nearby jury box, a disparate collection of a half-dozen other teens–mostly boys in wardrobes dominated by the color black–soberly weighs the evidence. At the end of the “trial,” it is up to them to decide what consequences Jacob should suffer for his ill-considered actions. Their eventual determination is the maximum penalty sought by the prosecutor, yet another teen conscientiously adopting a key role in this real-life courtroom drama: 25 hours of community service, restitution to the car owner, and four weeks of the same kind of jury duty they are discharging.

Welcome to Teen Court. For the past year and a half, this innovative merging of theatrical role-playing and the criminal-justice system has been quietly working to combat juvenile crime, offering a first-chance diversion from the court-jail-probation cycle, and compiling an impressive success rate.

A newly released evaluation report by SRA Associates of Sebastopol notes that the goal of the Teen Court program is to hold the recidivism rate for program participants to under 20 percent. For the period under study–January 1995 to June 1996–the actual figure for repeat offenders was just 9.2 percent.

“This is incredible,” exclaims Petaluma attorney Leroy Lounibus, who helped get the program established in Sonoma County. “The reason the rate is so low is because of the process. At every step of the way, they have to think about what they did.”

That crucial self-examination is done in the crucible of some fairly intensive peer pressure, from other teens who already have gone through the same process. It begins with an arrest and a real courtroom arraignment, after which defendants are referred to Teen Court by the Probation Department. But there is one other essential prerequisite.

“Unlike any other court of law, they have to admit their guilt,” explains Dyan Foster, executive director of Routes for Youth, the Santa Rosa non-profit that operates Teen Court. “The trial is for the jury to understand the circumstances and motivations in the case.”

All of the offenses referred to Teen Court are misdemeanors, most often involving crimes against property. Vandalism and trespassing account for more the half the cases. Less than 4 percent involve drug and alcohol offenses.

Among the defendants, three-quarters are there for their first arrest, while only 3 percent have two or more prior arrests. Two-thirds are male and the average age of all Teen Court participants is 14.

Since the program was initiated about four years ago, “over 850 cases have been referred to Teen Court, over 150 young people have been trained as attorneys, over $11,000 has been paid back to victims of misdemeanor crimes, and over 9,000 hours of community service have been served by Teen Court participants in local human service agencies,” reports Mark van Gorder, a member of the Routes for Youth board of directors.

“It’s a brand of juvenile court,” Lounibus elaborates. “The advocates for both the prosecution and the defense are teenagers; they present their case to a jury of teenagers. The only adult involved is the lawyer who presides over the court as a judge pro tem.”

Because it is a legally recognized alternative to juvenile court, the sentences dispensed by the peer juries are legally enforceable and often include paying restitution in addition to the community service.

Another of the consequences often included in a defendant’s sentence is a requirement that the teen write a letter of apology, one that not only is delivered to the victim of their offense, but also must be read aloud at a future session.

“The kids who are the prosecuting and defense attorneys and the kids who sit on the jury take it very seriously,” adds Bill Ferchland, a Santa Rosa lawyer who also has served as a Teen Court judge. “And that means that the defendants take it seriously.”

Just participating in the process forces defendants to reflect on and publicly explain the actions that brought them to this point in their life, regardless of whether or not they were part of a group or acted alone.

Lounibus says that the peer juries he has observed tend to take a hard line when considering sentences. “As a general rule, they’re pretty tough on the punishments. I’ve been surprised at how tough they’ve been.”

This is apparent as the jury deliberates Jacob’s fate, giving only passing consideration to the possibility of assigning him anything less than the maximum sought by the prosecution. When the consequences are announced by the jury foreman, Jacob accepts them stoically. As a result of the self-examination forced on him through his Teen Court experience, he has set new goals for himself and now has a job and aspires to become an electrician.

But first, he will take his turn as a Teen Court juror.

From the September 26-October 2, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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