Teencourt proves effective in fighting juvenile crime

Published on Thu, Oct 21, 2004 by ack Kintner

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Teen court proves effective in fighting juvenile crime

By Jack Kintner

“I like it because we’re taken seriously,” said Blaine junior Nancy Khoury, one of two coordinators for the 27 Blaine high school students who are a part of this year’s Whatcom County Teen Court. The court deals with second time juvenile offenders who have chosen to appear before the teen court for sentencing after admitting guilt to a misdemeanor charge, and the process is just as legal and binding as it is in regular juvenile court.

The court, first of its kind to be established in Washington, involves students from Blaine and 10 other Whatcom County high schools who take on the roles of prosecutor, defense attorney, court clerk, bailiff, jurors and judge in evening sessions held the second Wednesday of each month.

Local attorneys mentor the students prior to each session. In Blaine, local attorney Len Saunders is beginning his second year and is enthusiastic about the program. “As a kid it would have been my worst fear, to have been judged by a jury of my peers,” laughed Saunders, a graduate of Pepperdine Law School in Los Angeles.
Khoury, along with Blaine junior Desiree Duenas, is responsible for signing up and coordinating students to fulfill various roles each month. Students normally begin as a juror, then move on to the bailiff and clerk roles, then to being an advocate (the role of an attorney) for either the prosecution or defense, and ultimately to being a judge, complete with a black robe.

Blaine junior Emily Hendricks-Hockey, who was one of 10 involved in last year’s teen court program from Blaine, said that “it’s really cool being able to decide what a person gets for doing something. It’s real. It’s not a game, that’s for sure.”

Last week on the third floor of the Whatcom County courthouse, about a hundred students, parents, attorneys and teachers gathered along with Whatcom County court commissioners Chuck Snyder and Marty Gross, plus Northwest Youth Services teen court coordinator Cathy Beaty to inaugurate the court’s sixth year.

The evening began with a meeting of student representatives from each of the 11 high schools involved in the program. A half dozen pizzas supplied by Snyder evaporated like ice cubes on a hot sidewalk as the students met as a steering committee to make policy decisions for the coming year under Beaty’s leadership with Snyder and Gross watching.

This year numbers are up under the leadership of Blaine science and math teacher Don Sayegh, who took over a year ago for colleague Don Lotze. “Don did a terrific job,” Sayegh said, “and laid a foundation for the numbers of students we have this year.”
“That and the free pizza!” laughed Duenas, referring to the free pizza furnished to students in the program each Wednesday session – they meet over the dinner hour – by the volunteer attorneys and court commissioners.

Snyder began the teen court program in 1999 after a year of preparation and organization. “We’d been having these mock trial competitions for some years and then I saw a story about a real teen court in Texas,” Snyder said, and wondered if we could get one going here.” The county already had a similar program in operation, the adult drug court, where peers judge peers.

Snyder worked initially with Tina Lanci at Northwest Youth Services to develop the program, a role Cathy Beaty now performs. Lanci worked with youth offenders while Snyder coordinated the superior court and the many volunteer attorneys who participate.

“We get the courtrooms, buy the pizza, make sure everything’s ready and just generally supervise the whole thing,” he said, “and you can’t believe how enthusiastic the lawyers are. We’re all volunteering our time to make this happen, but it’s really a lot of fun and a terrific way to mentor high school students about the legal profession.”

Snyder and Lanci also recruited volunteer attorneys to work with each school as mentors. Saunders was recruited last year by Beaty and, like Sayegh, is beginning his second year.

“[Prosecutor] Dave McEachran, Danita Washington of Lummi Outreach, teachers like Steve Hoffman at Options high school, all were a lot of help,” said Snyder.

Each courtroom trial takes about a half hour to 45 minutes, and since each offender has already pled guilty the teen court is essentially handling only the penalty phase of each trial. Snyder began in one courtroom with a jury orientation. When he asked how many were new to the program all the hands in the room except his shot up.
He patiently led them through the ides behind restorative justice, and concluded with courtroom deportment.

In the courtroom, the clerk began proceedings by announcing to the half-full spectator area in the courtroom what was about to happen. The offender and his two advocates and the prosecution advocates went to their places and then as the clerk asked everyone to rise, the judge came in and sat down and gaveled the session to order.

After the jury and the offender were asked if they knew each other (if they do, the juror is excused) or if the offender objected to any of the jurors hearing his case, the judge read a summary of the offense and each advocate was given time to make a brief presentation. Jurors handed in cards on which they’d written questions, and the judge, the offender and the advocates from both sides went into the judge’s chambers to read the questions before returning to the courtroom to answer them. This was done to protect the anonymity of the questioner.

The jury was then led out into their room to deliberate in privacy, and 10 minutes later they emerged with a suitable penalty for the offender: a letter of apology, some hours of community service and restitution to the victim, in this instance about $50.