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LOS ANGELES Wednesday, November 25th 2015 4:34

Teen Justice: LA Students Sit as Jurors to Hear Real Criminal Cases

LOS ANGELES TEEN COURT - It may not be widely known that the Los Angeles Superior Court engages in community outreach, even in this era of economic problems and budget cuts. One of the most important and successful outreach programs is Teen Court.
Teen Court takes place in high schools throughout Los Angeles County. While one may assume that this is a “mock trial” type of program, designed to allow students to experience what it is like to be an attorney, Teen Court is different. Students sit as jurors to hear real criminal cases. The trials are presided over by Superior Court judges.

Here’s how it works. A probation officer selects cases involving minors who are first-time offenders, charged with misdemeanors. The most typical offenses are battery, vandalism, petty theft, and possession of drugs or weapons. The minor and the parent or guardian sign an agreement to have the case heard in Teen Court.

The cases are heard in a makeshift courtroom at the school. A jury of twelve students is selected to hear the case. The minor is not from the same school as the jurors. After the minor is sworn, a student who volunteers to be the clerk reads a synopsis of the case put together by the probation officer. The minor has an opportunity to admit or deny the charges, and offer an explanation. No attorneys are involved.

The jurors can then ask questions of the minor and the parent/guardian.  There are two main purposes to the questioning.  The first is to assist the jurors in determining guilt or innocence.  The second is to assist the jurors in deciding what probation conditions should be imposed on the minor to help him put his life on a different path.  

The jurors can question the minor about all the circumstances of the incident – who he was with, why he did it, etc.  They can examine the minor’s grades, and ask him what’s going on in his life.  They can see if he has any role models, or has younger siblings who might be influenced by what he is doing. They can ask the parent/guardian if she had any idea the minor was engaged in the activity involved, and what she did in response to learning about the charges.  The relationship between the parent/guardian and the minor is explored, as well as the role of others who are influencing the minor.

After about twenty minutes of questioning, often with the assistance of a volunteer court interpreter, the minor and parent/guardian are excused, the jury is instructed on the law, and a student-bailiff escorts the jurors to the deliberation room. At Fairfax High School, where another judge and I preside, we are fortunate to have students from Southwestern Law School volunteer to assist the jurors in their deliberations. The law students are not to influence the decision – but they can answer questions and help the jurors stay directed.

Once the jurors have reached a verdict the minor and parent/guardian are summoned and the foreperson reads the verdict. I have had a few not guilty verdicts, and I have honored the jury’s decision.  For the guilty verdicts, the jurors make recommendations for conditions of probation. These recommendations can include community service (including serving on a Teen Court), individual or family counseling, creating a plan for graduating school, curfews, letters of apology to the victim or parent/guardian, and restitution to the victim.

The probation officer comments as well. Ultimately, the sentence imposed is up to the judge.  I try to hew as closely as I can to what the jury recommends, but I do add or change the sentence, as proper.

The conditions of probation are imposed, and the minor is told that if she complies with all the terms and conditions, the charges will be dismissed, and she will never have to go to court or have a record. The minor must agree to abide by these terms and conditions, and is excused.

One of the most rewarding experiences is when the jury recommends that community service includes participating in Teen Court.  I have had several minors return to Fairfax, the site of their trial. They are often the best jurors, because they understand what motivates a young person to commit a crime, and they ask the most insightful questions.

The benefits of Teen Court are enormous.  The minor gets to stay out of court and keep the matter off his record. He hears what other teens think about what he’s doing with his life, and how he can make his life better. The parent/guardian learns something about the minor that she didn’t know before, and develops a better understanding of what’s happening with him.  The court, and indeed the whole justice system, benefits by keeping these cases out of court and preventing future criminal activity.

The students benefit in many ways as well.  Between and after the trials we talk about the legal system. They learn about and discuss the concepts of crime and punishment.  They come to understand the rudiments of criminal law, how every crime has elements. They learn valuable life lessons -- that words alone do not justify a battery -- and other bits of wisdom that experience can bring.  

But in my opinion the greatest benefit is that the students leave feeling that they have helped someone turn his life around and become a better person. They take it seriously because they know their work is truly important.

(Steven Kleifield is a judge for the Superior Court of Los Angeles County.)

Tags: Teen Court, Superior Court, Fairfax High School, jurors, trial, jury, probation, Judge Kleifield

Vol 10 Issue 5
Pub: Jan 17, 2012