San Jose Mercury News: Convicted teens appear before peers for sentencing

Is giving teens the power to convict their peers for the prevention of juvenile recitivism a good idea? You be the judge. -Submission by Cesar Flores

In the painful world of adolescence, often nothing looms larger than what other teens think of you.

Santa Clara County’s fledgling Peer Court hopes to take advantage of that mindset, by placing low-level criminal offenders in front of a jury of their peers.

In the fourth session since its start last month, on Tuesday 12 teen jurors will decide the punishment for a student defendant represented by two teen defenders, facing off against two teen prosecutors.

As in other successful programs in Santa Cruz, East Palo Alto, Oakland and across the nation, the defendants have admitted guilt and appear only for sentencing. And that can be horrifying.

“It was scarier than facing adults,” said a 17-year-old youth, who was a past defendant in Santa Cruz County Teen Peer Court for driving without a license. As often happens, he was sentenced in part to serve on peer court juries. “You don’t want to look bad. If it were adults, it’s like you don’t know them.”

All participants in peer courts are sworn to confidentiality, because juvenile records are private. On Thursday, Jo Ann Allen introduced the defendant and said, “We are here to restore her back to the community.” Allen runs the peer court program out of the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, as an alternative to sentencing by judges. Depending on the county, probation or police officers refer defendants who could benefit from the peer-court diversion program.

Teens say they are better judges of their peers than are adults. A defense tactic may be to talk about the defendant’s hard upbringing. “You make people think, ‘Oh, dang, that really sucks,’ so you recommend counseling,” said Summer Popovich, 16, who was serving as a juror in court last week.

But teens are no pushovers. “I’m really impressed with these jurors. They really know when the defendant’s lying, or when the parents don’t have a clue,” said Santa Cruz County Superior Court Judge Paul Burdick, who like other Santa Cruz County Superior Court judges volunteers his time in peer court.

Bianca Lozano, 17, of San Jose, sounds like a total prosecutor when talking about defendants: “The whole community is a victim if we cut them some slack.” And as for blaming transgressions on others, she said, “I don’t really believe in peer pressure. Deep down, they really wanted to try it out for themselves.”

Santa Clara County’s Peer Court is the brainchild of Supervisor Dave Cortese, who proposed in January creating a model of “restorative justice” that helps young offenders return to society. The model includes accountability, community protection and development of competency.

“I wanted to do whatever I could to reduce the juvenile offender population,” Cortese said. Although reliable statistics aren’t available, peer court supporters say programs are far more effective than the juvenile justice system. The Santa Cruz County program, for example, in 2010-11 saw 11 percent of its defendants re-offend within six months; in 2009-10, the rate was zero, project specialist Martine Watkins said.

“We really want to make it restorative to the victims and allow youth to see how it impacted the victims,” said Mike Simms, manager of Santa Clara County juvenile probation.

And the program gives other kids the chance to be mentors, he said. “Kids have similar backgrounds (as defendants’) and can say, ‘I’ve been in that situation, and I chose to do something different.’ ” In Santa Clara County, volunteers from Lincoln Law School in San Jose train the jurors and officers, who come from the Central County Occupational Center and from Andrew Hill High School.

Most courts handle only teens ages 14 to 17. On Thursday, a middle-school defendant in Santa Cruz County appeared on a drunk-in-public charge. She had consumed 10 or 11 beers.

Jurors heard from her principal, who called her willful. They heard from a neurological expert, who talked about the danger of alcohol to the development of teen brains.

They also heard from her mother, explaining how her daughter is under medication for depression and anxiety.

And they heard from the defendant, who said she thinks it would be OK to drink when she turns 16.

The jury returned a unanimous verdict, imposing a 9 p.m. curfew until July 1, attending a drug and alcohol program, writing about her experience, undergoing random drug testing and attending at least six months of one-on-one alcohol counseling.

Typically, peer court programs run on shoestring budgets. The Santa Cruz program spends less than $40,000 annually. Cortese said Santa Clara County’s program, relying mostly on volunteers, will not cost any additional money.

It’s a small cost for the benefit, supporters say. “Preventing good juveniles from having to go through the judicial process might be in everyone’s interest,” said Joe Moless, Lincoln Law School dean. Plus, training the students has been a boon to the school, a night school for adults. “They’ve lightened up the place. They’re full of energy and excitement.”

By Sharon Noguchi

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