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Calabasas | Valley Focus

Teen Court Provides a Jury of Their Peers

September 22, 1997|SYLVIA L. OLIANDE

The defendants sit nervously with their parents, answering questions from a jury of students their age about what made the teens do the things that landed them in this courtroom.

Was it gang-related? How did their parents react? How often was it the defendants' idea to shoplift, to do graffiti?

It is peer pressure at work at the city of Calabasas' monthly Teen Court hearings.

Organizers said the program, which exposes teens to the court system, is a way for those who are getting in trouble on a small scale to turn their lives around.

"A lot of these cases would be 'counsel and release,' " said City Councilman James Bozajian, who is also a Los Angeles assistant district attorney. "This provides a more controlled system, ideally preventing them from committing more serious offenses."

Depending on the charge, deputies at the Lost Hills Sheriff's Station give some teens the option of having their cases heard in Teen Court.

The teens admit guilt and agree to allow their cases to be tried publicly. In exchange for completing the terms of their sentence, the incident stays off their juvenile records.

Many jurors at a hearing Thursday said the defendants have a better chance of getting an appropriate punishment from them than with the traditional juvenile court system.

"I think kids our age understand kids a lot better than adults do," said 15-year-old Ross Erlich, who heard the case of a 16-year-old girl who stole a pager from another's purse at a party.

Sentences often include staying away from friends who are bad influences, serving hours of community service, strict curfews and writing apologies to victims.

A 13-year-old, tried last month in a case involving throwing vegetables at a neighbor's house, received a sentence that included participation on a future teen jury. He said the experience has taught him a lot about crime and its consequences.

He said, in the case Thursday of a 14-year-old tagger, "We're not trying to punish him. We're just trying to get him to stop what he was doing, and get him to think about what he's done in the past."

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