Teen juries put a new spin on juvenile justice
In L.A.'s peer courts, teen juries grill young offenders and then devise deterrents. The new juvenile justice approach is quickly building a track record of preventing repeat crimes.
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For Mr. Levine, keeping kids out of jail, where they can be exposed to more serious offenders, is key. He notes that, across America, budgets for counseling and other treatment services are being slashed or eliminated, making it harder to include crime prevention and rehabilitation in crime-fighting strategies.Skip to next paragraph
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Judge Wesley concurs. "The major thought behind this was the realization that you cannot lock everyone up," says Wesley, who has nearly two decades of experience starting all 17 teen courts in the county. "There have to be other ways of dealing with these children who have issues.... The hope is that we can catch them before they end up in my adult court and get sentenced to prison."
In the case of Garry V., his parents sat in the courtroom to hear questions the jurors asked of their son and to answer questions directed to them.
"Did you know your son was doing drugs?"
"Did you know he hangs out with gang members every day after school?"
The judge is there to explain the charges to defendants and jurors chosen at random from among the students who sign up to serve on the court. After charges are read, Wesley asks the defendant and the parents if they know any of the jurors – or if jurors know them – before proceeding.
"In this age of bullying, harassment, and in some cases payback – both in person and via the Internet – confidentiality would be important," notes Professor Dowdell.
Court usually convenes at 3:30 p.m. once every other week, and lasts about three hours. Three cases may be heard each session.
Education about court procedures and legal concepts is one side benefit of teen courts, say authorities.
"This has been an absolutely fabulous program," says Laura Cohen, director of a street law clinic and community outreach for Southwestern Law School, which has a pool of about 70 law students who attend peer court sessions and answer questions from high school students.
Part of the value of teen courts is that jurors can hear answers from victims, parents, and others, which are usually withheld from court proceedings, says Jo Ann Allen, director of Santa Cruz County Teen Peer Court, who has 16 years of experience with such courts.
"Sometimes the back-and-forth between jurors and parents will be so revealing it brings tears to everyone's eyes," says Ms. Allen. "No matter what the verdict, everyone goes home in a different mental space that has the quality of catharsis, something you almost never get in a real courtroom."
During the 2-1/2 years that probation officer Meado Broddie has served as teen court coordinator for the section of L.A. that includes Dorsey High, 90 percent of defendants have not reoffended. They have some incentives to succeed: They had to promise to abide by the teen peer court decision and, if they follow the judge's and the jury's orders, the case against them will be dismissed.
"The perhaps counterintuitive observation I notice from watching this is that the sentences are probably stricter and harsher than those given out at juvenile court," Ms. Broddie says.
Egypt Brown, a student on the jury in the Garry V. case, says teen court verdicts usually become deterrents to future illegal behavior.
"In this particular case, I worry that the defendant was too entrenched in his ways, that this court got to him too late to do any good," she says. "It looked like he had already made up his mind to do things he did."
Los Angeles Superior Court regularly gets requests from local schools to start new teen courts, but funding restrictions prevent it, says Camilo Cruz, community relations administrator for the court.
"Judge Wesley has done an amazing job at keeping our teen court a [volunteer-based] program," Mr. Cruz says. There is no budget, other than in-kind services donated by judges, probation officers, and administrative staff. "What we do need is much more support and/or resources for probation, which is a department spread extremely thin."