December 16, 2005
by CARRIE WATTERS
The Arizona Republic
He had no sleep. His eyes were red and they itched. Four drops to relieve them of the itch,” Brittany Chavez argued in an impassioned plea for a juvenile offender in Glendale Justice Court earlier this month.
Prosecutor Daniel Garcia took a harder stance. He called the crime an immature act. He went so far as to say the teen showed a lack of conscience when he used a bottle of eye drops at a local grocery store but didn’t pay for it.
More compelling than the misdemeanor shoplifting case – common in juvenile court – is the fact that the public defender is 17 and the prosecutor is 15.
They’re members of Washington High School’s teen court club. Twice a month, these students act as attorneys, jurors and bailiffs as they decide sentences in real cases.
Nearly 35 Washington students belong to the club, which began three years ago. The parent organization operates around the Valley and nation.
Krista Young, 17, said it confirmed her plans to go to law school.
Sometimes Krista acts as the public defender. She said offering up mitigating circumstances is rewarding, as with a case in which a teen stole white shirts because he couldn’t afford to do laundry.
She also likes prosecuting to ensure that the punishment fits the crime.
Experts say the benefit is twofold. The teens in the club gain exposure to careers in law. The defendants squirm under the judgments of their peers. The idea is that if peer pressure can lead to bad behavior, it also can lead to good conduct.
A 2002 study by the Urban Institute of Washington, D.C.. found that many offenders who go through teen court, instead of traditional court, are less likely to re-offend in the next six months.
“The punishment of just sitting in front of your peers can be pretty tough,” said Judge Quentin Tolby, who oversees the teen court.
The parents of the juvenile offenders must consent to let them attend the teen court. If a teen doesn’t follow the court’s orders, he or she will wind up in regular court and likely face stiffer sanctions.
Teens in the court club do not decide guilt or innocence, but they do hand down sentences. Punishments can include letters of apology, writing an essay or community service – including serving as a juror in teen court.
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