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Teen Court lets minor defendants major in accountability

Don't expect a bald bailiff named Bull or a lascivious prosecutor at 224 E. Kiowa St. Though Teen Court meets four evenings a month in the Municipal Courts Building with judges, juries and oaths galore, it's no comedy.

Founded in 1994 by Barby Schlabs and Pat Ezell, two former teachers and attorney spouses, Teen Court serves as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system.

Say you're a 14-year-old whose failed attempt at a five-finger discount has landed you in front of a municipal court judge. Typically, you would face a fine, a year's probation and be on your way. Schlabs, Teen Court's executive director, says this was something she repeatedly witnessed during her teaching tenure -- a slap on the wrist followed by repeat offenses.

What Teen Court provides is a second chance with a hefty dose of accountability -- a word one hears quite often from the adolescent volunteers who serve as the court's attorneys, bailiffs, and jury members. The punishments meted out to defendants by their peers are typically harsher than a regular court's and though the judicial process is shorter, it's considerably more intense. The advantage for the defendant is that, upon completion of their prescriptive punishment (a dose of community service coupled with relevant programs -- from anger management to conflict resolution), the incident is expunged from their record.

Teen Court begins with guilt firmly established so there's little by way of surprise witnesses or plea bargains. In addition, cases involving gangs and weapon-related offenses are prohibited.

Teen Court has two different tracks: a peer panel or the more dramatic trial, over which a bona fide judge presides. Far and away the most common procedure, the peer panel consists of a group of five trained teen attorneys who question defendants in private as to the nature and reasoning of their crime, with a focus on the student's particular circumstances, such as their home life and school performance. The panel then questions the parents before deliberating on its own and delivering a punishment with an explanation as to why they believe it most appropriate to the defendant.

Teen justice can indeed by swift. According to Program Director Pat Ezell, peer panels can process up to 10 cases in a two-hour session. Even the lengthier and more formal trials are likely to cover up to four cases in a three-hour session.

Christina Ruffini, a senior at St. Mary's High School, has been a prosecuting attorney for a year and a half. The experience has confirmed her desire to become an attorney, and she says she enjoys her work because she says it gives her a chance to really make a difference. It can, however, make things awkward on rare occasions where she runs into a former defendant. "I usually try and look the other way," she says with a smile, adding that she doesn't want the former defendant to feel bad.

But expedience is not Teen Court's selling point; rather it's the opportunity it offers to both demystify the legal process, and force teen offenders to own up to their wrongdoing. While a defendant knows a community service sentence will be forthcoming -- hours vary between 4 to 40 -- defendants are also often required to write apology letters to their parents and others affected by their actions.

Of course Teen Court can't entirely curb the adolescent inclination toward deviance. A few kids sitting behind this reporter were recently overheard swapping "whaddya in for?" tales like hardened cons. One girl qualified her confession of having been sentenced to 11 hours of community service for fighting with an admission that "if it was stealing, I wouldn't get caught."

But most of the teens sitting on the jury were somber-faced; aside from their mumbles proclaiming their name and school affiliation, there was not a snicker to be heard.

During one recent session, a 16-year-old named David was sentenced to 25 hours of community service, two nights of teen court jury duty, a letter of apology to his younger brother, and "jail jolt" (a scared straightstyled program that takes juvenile offenders for a tour of the county jail.) -- all for stealing trading cards from K-Mart.

As presiding judge B.J. Sett remarked after the evening's trials, "They [the teen jury] were a lot harder on that boy than I would have been."

-- John Dicker

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