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Peer Punishment

Teenage Offenders Get Real-Life Civics Lesson and Sentences at School Court


SIMI VALLEY — The teen sat at the defense table, his shoulders hunched up toward his ears, as the hardened prosecutor strode toward the jury.

"On the morning of 9/23/98," the prosecutor began, pointing his finger at the defendant, "he had a choice: whether he wanted to bring marijuana to school or not."

He paused dramatically.

"He made the wrong decision."

It could be a scene from the Ventura County Courthouse or the latest episode of "Law and Order," but it's not. This is teen court at Simi Valley High School.

Here in this study hall converted into a courtroom, students rearrange their desks and conduct trials on the second and fourth Thursdays of each month.

The defendants are high school students who are in trouble for minor infractions, such as fighting, smoking or possessing small amounts of marijuana.

The juries, prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs and court clerks are also teens. The only adult is the judge, a Ventura County attorney who has been granted authority by the courts to preside over the teen proceedings.

Unlike adult court, students can't appear in teen court unless they have admitted guilt. The proceeding is like the penalty phase of a trial, during which a jury determines the appropriate sentence for the crime. And the sentences the teen juries hand down are real.

Punishments vary according to school, but juries can generally order defendants to pay a fine of as much as $150, enroll in counseling, undertake up to 35 hours of community service, or write essays or apologies. They can also order the defendant to sit on future teen court juries. Usually, they order a combination of the above.

If defendants do not fulfill their sentences, cases get handed over to Ventura County probation, and sentences are automatically doubled.

Teen court was started three years ago at Oxnard High School, and today most high school--and some middle school--students in the county can opt to go before the court in their districts. If they don't, their cases will be routed through the probation department.

The only students who cannot choose teen court are in the Ventura Unified and Santa Paula school districts, which have none, said Tina Rasnow who works for the County Courts Administration, coordinates teen court and conducts training for new schools.

During the 1997-98 school year, teen courts around the county heard a total of 55 cases. Only 12 of those students failed to complete their sentences, and only 11 again committed a crime, according to county court officials.

The program is viewed by many teachers and court officials as a real-life civics lesson that can motivate students, when they are of age, to vote, sit on juries and take part in American democratic institutions.

"It's awesome, to use a word they use all the time," said Jim Steele, who teaches classes on law and law enforcement at Camarillo High School and has incorporated teen court into his class curriculum. "It's a real-world type of situation, getting kids who are committing offenses involved." The sight of a teenager interrogating another child's parent on the witness stand, asking them about their parenting skills: "That's really something," he said.

Ventura Superior Court Judge Steven Perren, who helped set up the first teen court, says the program helps students learn the responsible nature of citizenship.

"You invest in kids as participants, rather than them being told, or lectured to or condescended to," he said. "You say this is your game and your business. And isn't that what life is all about?"

In the Simi Valley teen court on this particular Thursday both cases involve drugs. The first student has pleaded guilty to smoking marijuana on the Santa Susana High School campus.

The second--a Simi High student--has admitted to being out after curfew and possessing marijuana.

The teen attorneys call witnesses, just like in real court. In the case of the Santa Susana student, the teen prosecutors call a drug specialist, and then they call the student. The young man sits before the teen attorneys and the jury and sheepishly describes what happened.

"I came to school with my friend," he said. "Behind the handball courts we smoked pot."

Questioning by the defense attorney reveals that the student has never been caught smoking pot before and that he is on special medication to prevent belligerent behavior. In addition, his parents have grounded him, and he has gone without stereo or television since the incident occurred nearly two months earlier.

He admits he has smoked cigarettes before and drunk a little alcohol.

"Would you say this arrest has caused you to reform in this area?" the defense attorney asks.

"Yes," he says.

His father is then called to the stand.

His son, who has been grounded for a month and a half, has been sufficiently punished, he says. His son's behavior is being closely monitored, and the family is making sure he takes his medication.

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