Teen Juries Put a New Spin on Juvenile Justice

Article excerpt

In L.A.'s peer courts, teen juries grill young offenders and then devise deterrents. The new juvenile justice approach is quickly building a track record of preventing repeat crimes.

The 13-year-old defendant, standing before a jury of his peers, hears the verdict: guilty of battery. The teenage jury foreman then reads the punishment:

"We sentence the defendant to a daily curfew, anger counseling, and 50 hours of community service, Your Honor," he says. "Also, he is not to have any associations with gangs, will write a letter of apology to his parents and the victim, will submit to regular drug testing, and will be put on academic probation. We also will put him into regular auto shop and art classes."

Teen peer court is in session at Dorsey High School in South Los Angeles - and this is no mock trial. The defendant, Garry V., is accused of a real crime. Student jurors mete out a real sentence. Presiding Judge David Wesley is a jurist from Los Angeles Superior Court. The school's Thurgood Marshall Courtroom is complete with a judge's bench, a witness stand, a jury box, and, yes, oak paneling.

The juvenile defendants who come to this place, one of 17 peer teen courts in Los Angeles County, are facing their first criminal charges - misdemeanors such as graffiti tagging, theft, prostitution, drug possession, and battery. The intent of the juvenile justice system is to drive down the re-offense rate and keep kids out of jail; the means is a forum whereby fellow teens ask the questions, decide the case, and assess the penalty.

The thinking is that teen peers understand, better than adults, what sentences will deter delinquent behavior and what is a proper way to pay back the community or the victim.

"Using a system of peer-based judgment may have an influence on the adolescent that does not come into account when in front of adults," says Elizabeth Dowdell, a sociologist at Villanova University in Pennsylvania. The possibility that adult professionals will misread a juvenile's case is eliminated, "since all of the jurors are near the same age and from similar backgrounds" as the defendants, she says. "Parents may also be involved ..., which may bring to light their teen's behaviors and their own responsibilities."

So, are teen courts any better than traditional juvenile courts at cutting the rate at which kids re-offend? Results of studies are not definitive, but they are encouraging. Comparisons of the two are difficult, researchers note, because teen courts tend to deal with lesser offenses while juvenile courts take cases of more serious crimes and repeat offenders. What's known so far is that 89 percent of the young people who were sanctioned in teen court the previous year completed their sentences, according to a 2005 study of the American Youth Policy Forum. Some even went on to serve as teen jurors themselves.

The idea is not new. Teen peer courts have been around for about 25 years and now number about 1,000 nationwide. But backers say they are ripe for further expansion - given their track record and relatively low cost. Where such courts exist, they divert about 9 percent of cases from standard juvenile court, research shows.

"Our municipal and county governments are at a critical crisis in funding," says Jack Levine, president of the National Association of Youth Courts. "We think we have developed the vaccine, which is this preventative investment in young people at the very earliest stage of their transgressions ... at school, home, or in the community."

The court at Dorsey High, where about half the students are African-American, thrives because of volunteers. They include 70 students from local law schools who advise the teen jurors about the law, community mentors who monitor defendants' compliance with the sentences, and the high school jurors, who can fulfill graduation requirements for their hours in court. …