The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas on October 20, 1996 · Page 48
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The Salina Journal from Salina, Kansas · Page 48

Salina, Kansas
Issue Date:
Sunday, October 20, 1996
Page 48
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ISSUES BY ROSEMARY ZIBART When teens judge one another The newest weapon against juvenile crime: The prosecutors and jurors are kids 'A! LL RISE' COMMANDS the clerk as the black- robed judge enters. On cue, prosecutor, I defense attorneys, bailiff and jurors stand up. It's a common occurrence in courtrooms nationwide, but in this case almost everyone involved is under 20 years old. It's Teen Court night in Santa Fe. Trial by teens is the latest weapon against rising juvenile crime. A recent federal report documents an alarming trend: Violent teen crime is on the rise, and the average age of offenders is dropping. The crime wave is being fueled by the sheer increase in the number of teenagers (teens may outnumber baby boomers by 2010), lessening parental controls and the current economic squeeze. The movement is rapidly picking up steam around the nation: • A teen court seminar scheduled for Monday in Albany, N.Y., by the American Probation and Parole Association is so popular there's a waiting list. • New Mexico, which now has 22 teen courts, got a jump-start four years ago when rural Silver City initiated the state's first teen court program. • Nationally, there are now 270 teen courts. "I see a strong trend brought about by communities desperate to do something" about teen crime, says Paula Nessel, coordinator of the American Bar Association Law- Related Resource Center. Whether called "peer jury," "student court" or "trial by peers," aU teen courts are run almost entirely by young people. In Santa Fe, first offenders cited with misdemeanors, such as drug possession, trespassing and shoplifting, can be referred to teen court by the state office of juvenile probation and parole — bypassing the traditional court system. It's not a court in the true sense: It's for sentencing only; defendants must first agree to plead guilty. Teen prosecutors and defense lawyers present cases to teen jurors, who impose sentencing. The benefit for wrongdoers: There are no fines, and their records are later cleared. The judge, usually a volunteer lawyer, oversees the entire proceeding and can lighten, but not increase, the sentence, which is strictly enforced. Consequences in the Santa Fe teen court include 10 to 125 hours of community service, counseling, a self-esteem course, a defensive-driving class, drug and alcohol screening, and GED completion. And, unlike "real" court, defendants also experience the system from the other side: They must serve as jurors. The result: Kids get a sobering, three-dimensional view of justice, says Deborah Klein, coordinator of the Santa Fe program. "They're not just victims of the system." "When kids ask other kids what happened, they really know what went on — they can't be fooled," Klein adds. The program "educates young people ABA/YEFC, 541 N. 9 OHUNfc The Justice Information Center, a Website of the National Criminal Justice Reference Swipe, has fact stieeis on : rather than just punishing them." Critics of the increasingly popular teen court system are hard to find. Even New Mexico Gov. Gary Johnson, a first-term Republican known for his get- tough stance on juvenile offenders, calls it an "effective tool." If anything, critics want to beef up the teen court system by enforcing standards and making it an official arm of the state courts. S ANTA FE TEEN COURT meets weekly, alternating t ' between the municipal and district courthouses. At 6 p.m. on Thursday, court halls begin to fill. Teens in baggy pants and sweatshirts lounge against the hallway wall. One tall, ponytailed youth fiddles with a yo-yo while joking with friends. But a few minutes later, when court is convened, the joking ceases. Young jurors file into the jury box. Defendants seated close to their parents (whose presence is mandatory) intently watch the proceedings, waiting their turn. As the defendants are introduced, the judge asks the j urors to disqualify themselves if they know the defendant. Not surprising in a small city, several cousins and school pals are dismissed. The remain- 1 think it's fair, and it's a lot easier to talk about what you did with other kids/ says juror Layla Forman, 15 ing jurors listen as defendants are'questioned. A boy with long blond hair tells of shoplifting a box of mint tea because, he says, his stomach hurt. A 17-year-old with a mushroom-cut hairstyle says he incurred a series of traffic citations transporting his baby daughter to his former girlfriend's house every night. Jurors respond sympathetically in both cases, returning light sentences of 20 to 25 hours of community service work. Less fortunate is a cocky youth who ignored a stop sign; he receives about three tunes as many public service hours. Later, jurors say he wasn't serious enough. S O FAR, THE PEER penal system appears to be working. In Santa Fe, a group of teen court traffic violators was compared with a group of similar teens in juvenile court. The juvenile court group subsequently was cited three times more often. In Albuquerque, repeat offenses among juveniles have dropped from 50 percent to 9 percent. Observes Layla Forman, 15, a juror formerly sentenced for leaving the scene of an accident: "It's a lot easier to talk about what you did with other kids." Azalea Maes, 18, who has served as both defense attorney and prosecutor, agrees. "I don't see a downside." Her recommendation to other communities? "Try it." tst Rosemary Zlbart Is the editor of Santa Fe's Royal City News, an online magazine ( 8 USA WEEKEND • Oct. IS-20. IVV6

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