Teens run court in an effort to keep young offenders out of the juvenile justice system

By Amanda Waldroupe, Staff Writer

Off to one side of the Fairview City Council’s chambers, 10 teenagers sit in two rows of seats. Some slouch, while others can’t sit still — they let their legs bounce, look at their smart phones, lean over to talk to one another, and one even takes off a chain necklace and starts playing string games.

A handful of other teens, some accompanied by their parents, sit in seats facing the city council’s dais, where Portland attorney Shelley Keller sits in a judge’s robe.

The jury rouses themselves when another teen across the room calls them and everyone else in the room to order. “Hear ye, hear ye,” the teen says, who is performing the role of court bailiff. He stumbles through phrases, such as “the honorable judge,” but once he is done, the Youth Peer Court is in session.

The Youth Peer Court is a restorative justice program operating in Gresham, Fairview, Wood Village and Troutdale. The program’s purpose is to keep juveniles who commit low-level offenses for the first time out of the criminal justice system.

The hearing held on June 28 was the final court session of the year, until school starts again in September.

The court relies almost entirely on teens to run the program — attorneys volunteer their time to act as judges and oversee sentencing, maintain order and guide the court’s weekly proceedings. But volunteer teens, in good standing in school, work with offending youth as their prosecuting and defense attorneys. And the jury is literally a jury of the offender’s peers — volunteers sit on juries, as well as teens who are past offenders.

The program has proven to be an effective alternative to sending juvenile offenders to jail, and more importantly, helping the teens realize the effects of the crimes they commit.

The growing awareness and use of Peer Court in east Multnomah County is also part of a growing movement to reform and soften juvenile justice in Oregon, and across the country.

“The juvenile (justice system) has realized that one of the best things they can do, particularly for first-time offenders, is to keep them out of the justice system as much as possible,” says Mark McKetchnie, the executive director of Youth Rights Justice.

Last year, the state Legislature created legislation to keep juvenile offenders out of adult jails, and last month, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that it was unusual and cruel punishment to give life without the possibility of parole to juvenile offenders. In the place of hard jail sentences, restorative justice programs are becoming more frequently used.

“The idea of restorative justice is repairing relationships in the community … and building conscience,” says Kim Harvey-Trigoso, Peer Court’s coordinator. “It’s a lot more meaningful than restitution. We want teens to feel like they are a part of their community, and that their actions impact themselves and others.”

Peer Court started three years ago in response to increasing concerns about drug and alcohol related problems in east Multnomah county’s various high schools—including the presence of alcohol and marijuana on campus. Numerous organizations, including the county’s juvenile department, district attorney’s office, and the school districts and police departments in the four cities where the court operates, collaborated to develop the program.

The most common offenses Peer Court handles include possession of less than an ounce of marijuana within 1,000 feet of a school, consumption of alcohol, low-level theft and burglary charges. Harvey-Trigoso says the court has also dealt with the occasional forgery case, and other low-level assault charges that are downgraded to harassment.

Adina Kiriac, 17, who has volunteered as an attorney with Peer Court for two years, has been surprised by how pervasive drug and alcohol use is among her peers.

“You could have the best student in the class doing marijuana, and you would never know it,” she says. “It’s given me a new perspective on my classmates. I would never have guessed that they were doing that. These things can happen to anyone.”

Many of the students coming through Peer Court, Harvey-Trigoso says, are at-risk youth close to getting kicked out of school, and come from tenuous and impoverished circumstances.

“We have a lot of kids who drop out of school very early. They are very behind,” Harvey-Trigoso says. “They are falling through the cracks.”

Juveniles come to Peer Court after they are given two choices by the police officer in charge of their case, the juvenile department or the district attorney’s office: try the case in court and thus enter the criminal justice system, or enter Peer Court.

The county’s juvenile department and district attorney office reviews every case. Most referrals either come from that office, or the police officers based at various middle and high schools.

If the youth chooses to participate in Youth Peer Court, they are first required to plead guilty to the offense they committed. They are also required to take steps designed to involve the youth with their family and community members who can help them get back on track. For instance, the youth are required to have their parent, guardian, or another adult with them in an interview prior to the court proceeding, or the actual proceeding itself.

During the proceeding, the youth is questioned in direct and cross-examinations by the defense and prosecuting attorneys. Once the case is heard, the jury deliberates and decides the sentence the offender gets.  A typical sentence is a combination of community service, writing essays about the impact of their crimes, and serving on Peer Court’s jury.

The minimum sentence a teen can receive is taking a class about the effects of crime and compulsory volunteering for two jury sessions. Community service time can’t exceed 16 hours, and essays can’t be longer than 1,000 words. Harvey-Trigoso says the juries rarely impose fines on defendants. “Of course, who would be paying that is the parent,” she says.

The sentences are designed to be educational as much as they are punitive. In that regard, Peer Court acts as an educational experience for the youth.

“They tend to commit these offenses because they are compulsive,” McKetchnie says. “They don’t have the cognitive development of adults. They don’t necessarily understand the consequences of their actions.”

Finally, the attorney volunteering as the judge gives the youth a stern warning regarding the seriousness of their crime, and how much jail time or fines they may have gotten had they gone through the juvenile justice system.

“It’s important for them to realize how serious some of these things are,” Keller says, pointing out that once kids turn 18 and become adults, they would go to jail or prison.

“A lot of times, we’re getting kids that are 17, and almost turning 18,” she says. “That birthday is the difference between a Peer Court case and possibly going to jail.

Once the youth finish their sentence obligations, they have the chance to expunge the offense from their record. Harvey-Trigoso and others regard that as one of the most important benefits of Peer Court. Having a criminal record that starts when someone is a teenager can affect what sorts of jobs and housing they can get, as well as eligibility for federal financial aid for college.

“Even if someone has their juvenile record closed, that history still comes into play as an adult,” Keller says.

The court does not keep track of recidivism rates, but Harvey-Trigoso says around 80 percent of the teens follow through with completing their sentences.

A lot of it, she thinks, is related to the fact that the court is peer-driven, and the sentences are given by fellow peers. “Peer pressure is strong,” Harvey-Trigoso says. “In the teenager years, you really care about what peers are saying to them. They’re able to relate to each other better.”

Kiriac says seeing peers sit on the jury and hand down sentences has the effect of humbling the offenders. “They expect to see a bunch of adults or strangers,” she says. “And then it’s like ‘oh, I have math with you tomorrow.’”

Harvey-Trigoso says the program is still too new to see any trends in decreased crime, or teen behavior. But the court has started to see an uptick in harassment cases. Much of it doesn’t involve physical contact, but can be harassment from cyber-bullying, harassing text, Facebook messages, or video.

Assault IV, which is the most common charge, is a “borderline” offense that is almost too severe to handle in Peer Court, Harvey-Trigoso says. As Peer Court continues, its sentences and methods of working with juveniles will evolve as the crimes they commit change.

The program is completely funded by federal grants, as well as in-kind support from the four towns participating in Peer Court. Currently, there is no Peer Court program in Portland. Harvey-Trigoso says the program would like to expand to Portland, but has not been able to find a way of funding the expansion — but she and others would like to see the program continue to grow.

“Anyway we can get in and intervene with kids, that’s a great thing,” Keller says. “And the less likely they are to end up in prison.”

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