Teen Courts put Youngsters at the Mercy of Their Peers
by Nancy Bartley
December 23, 2006
In walked “the honorable” Shelbie Stemm, oversized judicial robe billowing. She took the bench, cracked the gavel and welcomed everyone to court — teen court, where the 15-year-old judge was joined by equally young prosecutors, defense attorneys, jurors and a bailiff in hearing actual misdemeanor cases involving other teenagers.
Cases heard in teen court are diverted from juvenile court, for minor law infractions — shoplifting, trespassing and assaults, for example. Defendants already have pleaded guilty and have chosen to come to teen court to have the matter heard by peers who will assign a sentence, ranging from letters of apology to community service.
Snohomish County District Court’s South Division in Lynnwood began offering teen court five years ago as a joint effort among the court, the sheriff’s office and a group of judges, attorneys and the Shoreline/South County YMCA.
It’s one of at least 21 such courts in Washington, four of which are in King County. Nationwide, the concept is so popular that 45 states have legislation allowing cases to be diverted to the courts.
And several studies, including one released in October, show that teenagers sentenced through teen courts have lower recidivism rates than counterparts whose cases are heard in traditional juvenile courts.
According to a study by the Urban Institute, affiliated with the U.S. Justice Department, teens whose cases are heard in teen courts have a 6 percent recidivism rate, compared to an 18 percent rate for those whose cases are heard through a traditional juvenile court. Taxpayers save $9,200 for each case diverted to teen courts, the study shows.
The theory is simple: If peer pressure gets kids into trouble, it should be able to keep kids out of trouble, or effectively set them straight when they stray, teen-court backers say. As long as teens know they will be accepted back into the law-abiding fold, it works.
The frozen-peach case
All the approximately 20 teenagers from local school districts surrounding the court in Lynnwood volunteer their time, as does District Court Judge Carol McRae and several attorneys who meet with the students to assist them in how to handle cases properly.
The YMCA provides coordination and sets up training for teens who spend several hours learning court procedure. Teens alternate between serving as jurors, the bailiff, judge, prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“It exposes them to one area that our citizens have the least knowledge about, the justice system,” said McRae, who leads the Lynnwood program.
Before teen court began one recent evening, a 16-year-old boy charged with fourth-degree assault and his mother met privately with his two teenage defense attorneys, who had read the police report.
The 16-year-old had thrown a frozen peach at a 7-year-old, who had pelted him with rocks earlier in the day. The peach cut the younger boy’s lip.
The 16-year-old had pleaded guilty in regular juvenile court — a requirement before the case can be diverted to teen court — but his attorneys, Alana Stark, 15, and Addy Wagoner, 14, cautioned him about what to expect in court, particularly the aggressive prosecutor, Jai Sang Sun.
“Oh man, you’ve got Jai! I’ve known Jai since last year. They will try to bring out the worst things possible,” Stark said. “Just relax and answer truthfully.”
True to form, when the case came to court, Sun, dressed in a trench coat over a sweater, and his co-counsel, Quinton Ronquillo, were gunning for the 16-year-old who sat slouched at the defense table.
The defendant has created fear in the neighborhood and “intentionally harmed someone and is very much guilty of this crime,” Sun said in his opening statement.
The defendant testified that he lobbed the peach, not knowing the boy was there, something that contrasted with his statement to police. He said he later went to the boy’s apartment to apologize, but the boy’s mother refused to listen.
“Do you think you will be more careful when throwing a frozen peach in the future?” Stark asked. The 16-year-old said he would.
His mother also took the stand, and the attorneys asked her what kind of son he was. “He helps me around the house and cleans up his room,” she said.
In closing arguments, Sun argued for anger management, 20 hours of community service and a two-page apology essay to the boy’s mother. Stark argued for far less punishment.
When jurors came back, they had decided on five hours of community service and a one-page apology letter. The verdict didn’t make the 16-year-old especially happy.
But his mother said he should have faced tougher punishment. As they left, she asked Judge McRae about having the boy volunteer for teen court.
Several of those involved in teen court once were defendants, McRae said. Some keep in touch after high-school graduation, and McRae expects one or two may end up becoming lawyers.
“The programs educate young people in how the justice system works, and it gives pre-career training,” said Pam Inglesby, public legal-education manager for the Washington State Bar Association, which has held training seminars for those who work in teen courts.
But what’s driving the trend nationally is “the realization that the traditional methods of discipline aren’t effective,” Inglesby said.
“This is something that is very attractive to young people,” said Margaret Fisher, a Seattle University adjunct law professor who coordinates the Washington State Youth Courts program.
“Many [youths] see this as an opportunity to make a real difference. The youths who come through as offenders are being told by their peers, ‘What you did is wrong and here are some ways for you to make up for it,’ ” she said.
Teen courts vary
There are a variety of styles of teen courts. Some handle only traffic cases; others handle cases occurring only at school. Teen courts in Lake Forest Park, Auburn, Kirkland and Issaquah — which started in the 1960s and is the oldest teen court in the state — handle only traffic cases.
Almost all teen-court volunteers are recruited through the high schools within the jurisdiction of the courts.
At the Lynnwood teen court’s monthly hearing, McRae discussed the case with the volunteers after the 16-year-old and his mother had left, reminding the students that everything was confidential.
Then it was time for the second case — a trespass at Alderwood Mall.
Judge Stemm handed over the robe to the next student judge. The bailiff told the gathering to rise, and another defendant was congratulated on making the teen-court choice.
Copyright 2006 The Seattle Times Company