Imagine a courtroom where the attorneys are just learning to shave, the jurors have braces and they all have math and geography homework to do when court isn’t in session.
It’s called Youth Court - a place where wayward teenagers are judged, represented and sentenced for their crimes by kids their own age.
A group of Kootenai County justice system officials are hoping to get just such a program started in Coeur d’Alene.
A committee made up of prosecutors, police officers and teachers will present a proposal to the Coeur d’Alene School District Board of Trustees tonight.
“It ends up educating youths plus holding them accountable for their conduct,” said Judge Robert Burton, the Kootenai County magistrate and former high school teacher, who initiated the effort.
Burton hopes to model the Kootenai County program after one created in Ada County. Eight hundred kids have gone through the Boise program since it began in 1990, said Elsa Bennett, a Borah High School teacher.
“It’s such a practical, hands-on way to deal with our overburdened court system and also for our kids to get a real idea of what happens when you go to court,” she said.
Youths caught drinking alcohol or smoking cigarettes first must admit to the violation. If they do, they then have the choice of being sentenced in adult court or in youth court.
If they choose youth court, they go before a jury typically made up of juniors and seniors in high school. A teenage “lawyer” will be appointed to represent them and a teenager also will be there to “prosecute” them.
A real judge presides over the hearing and adult lawyers volunteer their time to the program to give the youngsters pointers on how to be good attorneys, Bennett said.
The young jury listens to the two sides argue both for and against the accused teenager. Jurors then hand down a sentence they think is fair. In Boise, a judge rarely has overturned a sentence, and only in cases where the sentence has been too harsh.
The jury cannot fine the offenders or send them to detention. Instead, they usually order wayward youths to do community service, attend self-esteem or anti-smoking classes and write essays to be presented to a class.
But don’t think the accused get off easy just because the jury is a group of teens.
Those caught smoking usually are ordered to go to the hospital where they see the corpse of an emphysema victim, Bennett said.
“The beautiful part about having a student jury is they can see through a lying defendant immediately whereas an adult might not,” Bennett said. “They’re tough. The student juries go right for the throat.”
Jennefer Bryson, a 17-year-old juror, ordered one boy to do eight hours of community service, go through two anti-smoking classes and write two 300-word essays that he had to read to a junior high class.
The 15-year-old boy was caught with cigarettes and had been skipping class.
“He had a pretty sarcastic attitude,” Bryson said. “We thought we would give him a lesson he would deserve. Maybe he would learn something finally.”
If a juvenile completes the sentence as ordered, the charge will be wiped off his record, Bennett said. If not, an arrest warrant is issued.
“It gives kids some power,” said Denver Klick, a 16-year-old Borah High School student who has been both a defendant and a juror in youth court. “Kids today don’t get all the credit they deserve.”
Nabbed smoking, he was ordered to do community service and draw a poster about the hazards of smoking.
The Kootenai County program still is in the early planning stages, although Burton hopes to have it in place within the year.
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: How it works As an alternative to sending juveniles to adult court, some Kootenai County prosecutors, police officers and teachers hope to launch a Youth Court program in Coeur d’Alene. How it would work: If students admit to a violation of school policy and choose to be sentenced in Youth Court, they go before a jury typically made up of high school upperclassmen. Students will serve as prosecutors and defense lawyers. A real judge presides over the hearing. Adult lawyers volunteer their time to offer pointers to the teen attorneys. Among the possible sentences: self-esteem or anti-smoking classes, community service, essay writing. If a juvenile completes the sentence as ordered, the charge would be wiped off his record. If not, an arrest warrant would be issued.