Oregon State Bar Bulletin — APRIL 2005

Teen Choice
Teen peer courts prove to be an effective preventative tool
By Cliff Collins

Three teenage girls arrested as minors in possession got a real-life lesson when one of them nearly died of alcohol poisoning.

Part of their sentence was to go to a middle school and give a presentation on the dangers of alcohol. They told the kids how scary it was for them to see their best friend almost die from drinking.

The girls’ sentencing was administered by other teens, members of the Linn County Peer Court. Over the past dozen years, youth peer courts have sprouted all over the state, with about 40 now running in cities and counties across Oregon. Most follow a similar model to Linn County’s, and the results have youth advocates waxing enthusiastic.

For offenders charged with first-time misdemeanors, the benefit of peer courts is as "a preventative tool," says Melinda Baxter, a lawyer who works as coordinator for Lincoln County Teen Court. "Overwhelmingly, they say they that if they hadn’t been involved (in being sent to peer court), they would be in greater trouble."

"The goal is to hold teens accountable for their behavior, and to do it in a positive way to keep from impacting their future," says Toni Johnson, a Waldport lawyer who has volunteered for seven years as a judge for Lincoln County Teen Court in Lincoln City and Newport. Peer courts provide offenders, as well as the youth who serve as jurors, attorneys, bailiffs and clerks, knowledge of the law and the justice system and "insight into themselves," and give them "more empathy for others," Johnson says.

Teen court attorneys April Gonzalez (left) and Kayla O’Brien have a sidebar with Judge Toni Johnson during a recent session in Lincoln County Teen Court.
Offenders who go through peer court "have told me repeatedly it was kids their own age, using positive peer pressure, that really made a difference to them," says Ron Jacobsen, coordinator of Linn County Peer Court. "They stood up and listened, as opposed to (what they would do with) any adult. They really care what their other peers think about them. That’s the "secret" to peer courts’ success, he says.

Johnson agrees. "Oftentimes they glaze over when a judge talks, but they’re impacted by kids," she says. "The jury asks ... some great questions; they get to the heart of the matter much more effectively than adults do. The peer group has more sway in the teen years."

Individual peer courts work slightly differently, but the basic concept is this: When a police officer cites a youth for a misdemeanor — commonly for being a minor in possession of alcohol or marijuana, or breaking curfew violations — the defendant has two choices: go to juvenile court, with the possibility of garnering a criminal record and possibly losing a driver’s license, or admit guilt and go to a youth peer court.

Volunteer youth from ages 12 through 17 serve as jurors, though generally half the jury also is comprised of teens who have been defendants themselves, one of the requirements of going to peer court. Prosecuting and defending attorneys are trained volunteer teens, as are the bailiff and clerks. Most presiding judges are adult attorney volunteers, who enforce the rules of court.

Lincoln County Teen Court administrator Melinda Baxter confers with her daughter and teen court attorney Amity Jonse in preparation for an upcoming case.
"The teens actually run the entire court," notes Johnson. "I do not get involved in sentencing." Juries are taught to concentrate on accountability and rehabilitation, not punishment, and juries are "extremely compassionate, very just," she says. "I’ve rarely seen a sentence I thought inappropriate."

That’s not to say the kids are too lenient, points out Edward S. McGlone III, assistant counsel for Clackamas County who volunteers in Washington County Peer Court: "They really sock it to kids. They’re reasonably compassionate, and pretty tough." He says some jurors volunteer to serve even after their one-time requirement ends, so "they must have gotten something out of it." Linn County’s Jacobsen concurs. "They’re as tough as I would be, in some cases even more tough," he says. "We try not to be as punishment-oriented, but help them make better decisions in the future."

Sentences generally involve community service projects, future service on a peer court jury, and often special additional assignments, such as serving restitution, sending an apology, writing papers about the negative impact of substance abuse on teens, or visiting with emergency medical technicians or emergency physicians. Some courts also require as part of the sentence attendance at a self-esteem workshop.

Teen court attorney Jay Welch sums up before the jury (and three parents) during a recent session of Lincoln County Teen Court.
"(Former) offenders serving as jurors — it was hard for me to get past that," admits Jacobsen, who says that at the beginning, he was apprehensive about that aspect of peer courts. "It turns out that is one of the biggest strengths of the program."

Johnson and McGlone say they’re amazed at jurors’ creativity in developing sentences. Johnson recalls one offender who had been cited numerous times for skateboarding on sidewalks. The jury had him draw up a map of his city, she says. "He had to draw where he could skate and where he could not. (The sentence) was very imaginative."

For volunteer teen lawyers, serving on peer courts can be a good training ground for their futures. Edward S. McGlone IV, 15 and a sophomore at Beaverton High School, serves as a prosecuting attorney in the Washington County Peer Court (sometimes with his father, Ed III, as judge). "I want to explore a career in law or politics," says McGlone. Serving has "been a wonderful experience." Plus, "It’s nice to feel you’re making a difference in the community."

He also believes that sending first-time offenders to peer court is "less authoritarian, but more constructive" than having them tried in juvenile court. "The goal is to help the defendant more than just punish them," he explains. In addition, when defendants serve on the jury, they see things from the other side, and realize how their behavior affects the community, McGlone adds.

Edward S. McGlone IV, 15 and a sophomore at Beaverton High School, serves as a prosecuting attorney in the Washington County Peer Court (sometimes with his father, OSB member Ed McGlone III, as judge). "I want to explore a career in law or politics," says the younger McGlone. Serving has "been a wonderful experience."
Parents usually are part of the process, and are in court at the same time as the juvenile. Scenes often are emotional, says Johnson. Frequently, when a youth speaks in the courtroom, that is the first time parents hear his or her problems, and it can be "painful to see their child in this position," she says. McGlone IV says sometimes a "mom cries on the stand and asks for help with the child."

Recruiting teen volunteers can be challenging, especially for small, rural communities, says Baxter. Jacobsen uses current volunteers as recruiters whenever he can. "If I take some of my high school volunteers, especially to an eighth-grade class, I showcase them. I let them talk, demonstrate a mock court, hold a question-and-answer session. Anytime an upperclassman comes in," the students pay attention, he says.

Although Baxter says measuring recidivism is hard — some youth commit a different offense the next time — Lincoln County’s completion rate for its teen court is 98 percent, and "at one time, we figured it saved the county $300 per case" compared with the cost of juvenile court, she says. Linn County saw the "number of referrals to the entire juvenile department" decline after four cities in the county developed peer courts and the county opened a detention center, says Jacobsen.

An additional benefit of peer courts is that teens involved, from the ranks of defendants as well as volunteers, often go on to college, and some become interested in pursuing careers in the justice system. "Several have gotten interested in the law and gone to law school," notes Baxter. But she is gratified "seeing a defendant in a coffee shop, with a smile and with a job. To see them succeeding in anything" makes all the effort worthwhile, she says.

Cliff Collins is a Portland-area freelance writer and frequent contributor to the Bulletin.

© 2005 Cliff Collins

Peer Courts Across Oregon

Peer courts in Oregon are run by counties, cities, police and sheriffs’ offices, and one Indian reservation. Volunteer service is the backbone of every program.

Serving as a volunteer judge takes time and can be emotionally draining, concedes Waldport’s Toni Johnson, a member of the California bar who has served on the Lincoln County Teen Court for seven years. "These kids and their parents often pour out their hearts when they’re on the stands, but you can see the huge difference it makes," she says. "They’re able to move on with their lives."

Johnson hopes more lawyers will become involved. "Teens are not the easiest group to work with," she observes; but she thinks adults are gratified that they volunteered once they see the results peer courts produce.

The National Youth Court Center serves as a clearinghouse for information about peer courts generally and has a website at www.youthcourt.net. It lists detailed contact information for all youth courts in Oregon, alphabetically from Albany to Veneta and provides a wealth of other information. The center also maintains a website directed at youth who volunteer: www.ycyouth.net.

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