Teens Get a Lesson in Court Offenders Sentenced by Peers

Article excerpt

County Court Judge Robert Williams called the court to order with great solemnity, and all present swore to refrain from repeating case details outside of the room.

It was time for business.

In the Nassau County Teen Court, where those accused of first-time misdemeanors are prosecuted and sentenced by their peers, the business is teaching teens the errors of lawlessness, said Teen Court coordinator Charles Griffin.

The prosecution, the defense, the defendant, the jurors, the bailiff, the clerk had much in common. They were all teenagers or adolescents.

Once sentenced, the offenders also will serve as jurors in the same court.

This way, the teens see both sides of the legal system. After being corrected, they correct.

The program aims to educate them about law and its rigidity, Griffin said. The defendant already has been convicted of some offense by the time he or she is on the teen court stand. Instead of determining guilt, the lawyers argue over the severity of the unavoidable punishment.

The defending attorney attempts to deflate the number of community service hours through which his or her client will have to work.

The prosecutor, on the other hand, labors to punish the perpetrator with as many hours as the jury deems appropriate.

The teens judge offenses at the level of shoplifting or disruption of school functions. For example, if a youth is caught with a bottle of beer, but a breath test shows that he or she is not drunk, then the youth goes to teen court.

A great advantage of the teen court is that after the time has been served, the offender's record is absolved.

The Nassau County Teen Court began in March 1998. In the 10 years of teen court existence in Florida, 58 have operated, Griffin said. He added that Nassau County prosecutes about 100 offenders in a typical year, but in larger counties, such as Orange County, about 400 or 500 cases are tried.

A star prosecutor, according to Griffin and Williams, is Catherine Hardee, a junior at Fernandina Beach High School.

Hardee is among the court's 400 volunteers between the ages of 11 and 17.

"The people I prosecute recognize me," she said. "They don't always speak to me. They're not always nice. But it's a job you got to do."

Seems like it might be nerve-wracking for a high school girl to insist on more punishment for those who are potentially her classmates.

But there are no acts of retribution from the punished to the prosecutor -- no name-calling in the school halls, for example. Therein lies the excellence of the program, Griffin said. Resentment is precluded by jury duty.

This unveils the iron curtain of American law for the impressionable teens. They see that their unacceptable behavior is similarly unacceptable in others, and they punish their age mates for the same level crimes that they were guilty of themselves. …

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