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Attitude makes a difference in teen court

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Posted: Monday, April 10, 2006 10:00 pm

Recently, I had the opportunity to serve on jury duty. I know - whoopee, right? Well this wasn't just any regular jury; this was a jury of teenagers, run and operated by teens. The Lodi courthouse was the place, and two cases were on tap.

The process is completely teen operated. In the courtroom was a teenage bailiff, 12 teen jurors and a teen court clerk.

The two cases that were up on the plate were regarding two young men, both in different situations. In each case both subjects have already confessed and are already guilty of the crime. What Teen Court does is intervene before the youth are sent straight to jail. So, in other words, this process is a last-ditch effort of sorts.

The jury, complete with 12 to 13 teenage jurors, acts more as a Grand Jury, in deciding the fate of their peer.

This program is run by the San Joaquin County Probation Department, whose leaders feel that Teen Court is all about early intervention and prevention through accountability and education. Teen Court travels from city to city in San Joaquin County twice monthly, incorporating only city offenders from their host city.

After being huddled into the jury chamber, I met with 12 other teens, some serving for the first time, some repeat volunteers, and some required to serve due to themselves being sentenced by a Teen Court jury months prior.

At this time, the cases of both young offenders were presented to us, each in a case file. The documents contained the offender's school grades, classes, absences, suspension history, and a police report regarding why they were cited.

Another note: only cases of minor offense, such as petty theft, can be referred to Teen Court. More serious offenders are sent to juvenile hall or the CYA.

After reading over the cases we are introduced to the judge. Our judge rules at the Stockton courthouse, currently presiding over murder cases.

After our chat session we were whisked into the courtroom where we were seated. After a few moments, the judge made her way out as everyone in the court room stood up.

Throughout the hearings each juror is expected to ask one question.

There are some already prepped questions if the juror doesn't know what to say.

As the first hearing went forth, the jury asked some great questions and quickly got to the emotional root of the offender. The offender's parent also spoke and were questioned.

After hearing out the first case, we moved on to the second. This offender was a little bit different. Whereas the first offender openly admitted to his wrongdoing and agreed it was bad, the second offender wouldn't even admit what he had done was wrong. Reminder: Each offender in Teen Court is already found guilty before stepping foot in the courtroom.

I could tell the other teens were a tad miffed at the offender's behavior, so I began a bit of grilling and tough guy attitude myself.

How was my tough love on crime accepted?

Let's put it this way, when we returned to the chambers to deliberate, one juror said, "I hope you're never a juror on my case."

After nearly 40 minutes of deliberation, the other jurors and I came to a decision for the appropriate consequences for each offender.

Jurors may choose from an incredibly long list of programs that the offender can be enrolled in, not to mention a mandatory community service sentence.

I'm also told that Teen Court offers a much more extensive list of programs than regular court does to help rehabilitate or support the offender.

Jurors can also create their own sentencing, such as six months in the Big Brothers, Big Sisters program.

The first offender got off fairly easy for his crime wasn't all that severe, he was apologetic and openly sad over the issue.

But offender number two wasn't taken so lightly.

After sentencing and a few words from the judge, court is adjourned.

The experience was awesome and I can't wait for Teen Court to return to Lodi so I can do it all over again.

Do you want to be a juror? You must be a teen and in school to do so. Call Probation Assistant Ana Andrade at 468-4042.

Wade Heath is a college student and can be reached at: reachwade@lycos.com.

First published: Tuesday, April 11, 2006

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