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Jury of their peers

Law | Teen courts around the country handle misdemeanor trials of local teenagers-and their decisions are anything but moot

Issue: "Tighter lips?," Feb. 18, 2006

Sarah McGowan watches the bailiff on Judge Judy and every month looks forward to having the authority of a bailiff in her local Teen Court: "That's my favorite part: yelling at people." The not-so-favorite part: high heels. "My feet hurt," she complained to her mom at the end of a case.

Sarah participates in the Williamson County Teen Court in central Texas: It's one of approximately 1,037 youth courts that operate in 48 states. The court, which allows juvenile offenders to defer their cases to peers for sentencing, consists of junior-high and high-school students acting as jury, attorneys, court reporters, and sometimes judge. The courts are legally binding, sentencing those teenagers found guilty to community service hours, restitution, and other creative punishments. Youth courts handle 9 percent of all juvenile arrests and mostly handle minor misdemeanors.

Justice of the Peace Edna Staudt developed the Williamson County program in 1997 out of her belief that "peer pressure is the greatest influence on high-school students." A professing Christian, Judge Staudt also desires to give both participants and defendants a "godly basis for the law" by helping them understand that a person who chooses to break the law has to accept the consequences. "There are rewards for good choices and consequences for bad choices," she told the teens one evening. She tells them of the need to be sorry, repent, and turn away from a life of crime.

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The three teenagers on the defense stand one night weren't the only ones to benefit from the program. Sarah finds that Teen Court gives her not only a silver bailiff's badge but added confidence as well, and Judge Staudt says that's typical: By taking on roles as attorneys and other court personnel, teens sharpen debate and oratory skills. Judge Staudt brings in attorneys, law enforcement officers, and other community servants to teach the children about the justice system. "By the time you get done, you'll know more about a parking ticket than your parents do," she told the kids in a recent training session.

During one of the monthly court nights, the Williamson County Teen Court handled three cases in a two-hour period. Teenagers in jeans and collared shirts filled Judge Staudt's small courtroom, talking with friends until the bailiff called "All rise!"-and court faces were on. The first defendant on the stand was 15-year-old Angela, wearing jeans and a bright orange T-shirt. She was found guilty of disorderly conduct after she and another girl fought in a school bathroom.

"What choice should you have made?" the defense attorney asked her.

"There was no choice," Angela said. "There was a whole group of friends outside the door."

"How have you been taught?" the attorney continued.

"I was taught not to start a fight, but to defend myself if I need to," Angela replied.

Angela faced the jury with her father as the foreman read the verdict. Sentenced to 19 hours of community service and jury duty for the Teen Court, Angela will have a clear record if she completes the terms.

Ronald, the third defendant of the night, seemed to understand his responsibility toward the law better than Angela. Ronald and another boy fought in the school parking lot after the boy made a racist comment.

"Do you believe [fighting] is a good way to resolve conflict?" the prosecuting attorney asked.

"No."

"What choice should you have made?" asked the attorney.

"I should have walked away."

A 2002 survey by the Urban Institute found that the six-month rate for repeat crimes in Teen Courts in four states ranged from 6 percent to 9 percent; the normal rate for those states was 18 percent. Long-term studies comparing recidivism rates are not available, but Linda Lynch, program director of the Teen Court in Colorado Springs, Colo., believes the program in her city is helping: "Youth commit fewer second offenses when they are sentenced by a jury of their peers."

Other benefits of Teen Court programs include lower costs for justice departments, reduced court backlog, and community dialogue on the meaning and purpose of justice. According to the American Youth Policy Forum, the average cost of a youth court is roughly $480 per teenager who completes his or her sentence; the system depends on volunteers and sponsors, like the local YMCA that backs Judge Staudt's program.

Not only do defendants often come to grips with the choice they've made, but participants become more familiar with the law and its seriousness. Alex McGowan, 12, came to his first Teen Court in July as a juror. Like his sister Sarah, he loves Judge Judy and is now able to take part in a real judicial process. "I've learned about the crimes," he said. "It's a big deterrent not to do them." Most youth courts, including Williamson County's, require offenders to serve on the jury on another court date. According to a year-long study by the American Youth Policy Forum, one in five young offenders volunteers for the program after completing the required assignment.

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