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High school peer court on the horizon?

April 7, 2014

By next fall, juvenile offenders may have an alternative that keeps them out of the legal system with no record of their “stupid kid stuff.” That’s how Inyo County Superintendent of Schools Terry McAteer describes the type of misdemeanors that could be coming before a new Peer Court system.
The concept came out of a “Keeping Kids in School” summit meeting held last December in Anaheim, organized by the California Chief Justice and Superintendent of Public Instruction. McAteer attended along with local school administrators and representatives from Inyo County Probation Department, juvenile court, county counsel and Department  of Health and Human Services.
The Peer Court model discussed at the summit hit a cord with both McAteer and Probation Department Chief Jeff Thomson. “This is something I’ve wanted to do for several years,” said Thomson in an interview late last year. “The research shows that with low-level juvenile offenders if you do nothing (following a risk/needs assessment) they have a better chance at success. Putting these kids in the system doesn’t work.”
While the Peer Court model discussed in March at the ICSOS Bishop offices keeps juvenile offenders out of the system, there are consequences handed down by a panel of jurors their own age. The only adults involved in the process would serve the role of judge; the “defendant” and the “district attorney” would be represented by advocates, also high school student.
That March meeting, attended by the primary local stakeholders in the legal, law enforcement and school systems, was called by McAteer to begin working out the details for an Inyo County Peer Court. On hand to explain how the court works in East Palo Alto Youth Court, Toni Stone, executive director, said that in the six years the program has been active there has been 0 percent recidivism.
The East Palo Alto Police Department refers cases involving low-level crimes to the Youth Court; if the offense occurs on one of the three charter school campuses in the community, the school goes through the EPAPD to involve the offender in the program. Cases go beyond McAteer’s idea of “stupid kid stuff” to include vandalism and theft. Stone’s organization meets with the juvenile and the parents. One of the requirements is that the offender admits to the crime since the proceedings determine the sentence, not guilt. 
The court proceedings mirror real-life court proceedings with the advocates presenting their cases, the judge giving jury instructions and the jury panel delivering the sentence. “Part of that sentencing includes a reflexive essay and an apology,” said Stone. The actual punishment involves community service; there is no fine or fee, no monetary restitution and if the offense involves a victim, that victim has to sign off on the process. One other stipulation of the process is that, once the sentence is completed, the youth has to serve in some capacity, either as juror or advocate, in the court process, guaranteeing that future offenders are really going before a court of their peers.
“We arrange for and supervise the community service,” said Stone. “We work with different groups. The service has to be a meaningful experience and the sentence has to relate to the crime.” The East Palo Alto Youth Court can also provide counseling and other services to keep the youth offender on the right track following the community service sentence. One of the long-term benefits to the offenders is they come out of the experience with no stigma and no criminal record.
While one of the benefits can be a reduction in case loads for the county’s judicial system, that is not necessarily the case for Stone’s community. According to Stone, before the Youth Court became active, the area police department would often just take juvenile offenders home because “they didn’t want to put them in the system.” That may have been a good option for the offender, but it did not address the on-going issues.
Inyo District Attorney Tom Hardy and Deputy Probation Officer Heather MacArthur both maintained that a Peer Court could be redundant in Inyo County. “While I see the value,” Hardy said, “we have a low juvenile case load.” With effective tools available at the Probation Department over the last few years, Heather agreed that her department’s Evidence-Based Practices and risk/need assessments were all working. But, Judge Dean Stout pointed out that the Peer Court program could be used as an alternative to school suspension, the focus of the discussion at the “Keeping Kids in School” conference. An alternative model could take referrals from county schools as well as from law enforcement.
“I have confidence in Probation,” said Stout in a telephone interview. “They have good outcomes; they’re smart on crime, not just tough on crime. But we need to keep asking the questions and finding ways to be more effective.”
The model for the Inyo County’s Peer Court would include monthly court sessions hearing two or three cases each scheduled at the courthouses in Bishop and Independence to serve both ends of the county. “I want to have this going by next fall,” said McAteer. “We have nine months to work out the details.” McAteer will be meeting with staff, Thomson and school principals to work out the details.

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