New York — Every Wednesday in a district attorney's office in Denver, a group of teen jurors holds court. The defendants, teens who've been arrested by Denver police and have admitted to minor crimes, have agreed to be tried and sentenced by their peers.
The juvenile jury is an attempt by legal authorities in the state to curb rising teen crime. Though youths aged 10 to 20 make up only one-fifth of the country's population, they account for over half of all arrests.
The experiment has been successful, according to a report in Seventeen magazine. One study, which shows that 56 percent of all teenagers arrested in Denver become repeat offenders, reports that only 10 percent of the teens tried by the juvenile jury are arrested again.
Only teens who have committed minor crimes are given the option of being tried by their peers. Serious cases still go through the regular court system.
"The whole reason for the juvenile jury is to do away with that severe authoritarian figure that kinds naturally want to rebel against," says Zoralee Steinberg, the social worker who founded Denver's juvenile jury system. "The jury kids are amazingly sensitive to their peers' problems."
Rather than simply doing out punishment, the jury requires young offenders to agree to such terms as visiting court counselors, working part time, writing progress reports, and paying damages to their victims. To renege on a contract takes on the dimension not of simply defying authority, but of betraying one's peers.