Mastering the nuances of the criminal justice system is no small feat — especially if you’re a teenager.
A group of middle- and high-schoolers, however, are cramming to do just that.
On a recent Tuesday night about a dozen teens sat in a circle listening to lawyer Ginny Espenshade discuss various legal principles — the difference between civil and criminal cases, how intent affects the prosecution of a crime, and what counts as manslaughter versus murder. Engaged in the lesson, students occasionally piped up with questions. At one point, one of the male students raised his hand and asked why the term was “manslaughter” and not “womanslaughter.”
Eventually the conversation moved on to a topic the students can relate to — texting and driving, and whether laws governing cell phone use also apply to GPS systems.
The session was part of a weekslong training course aimed at preparing students for service on the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, a diversion program that allows youth offenders to have their cases heard by peers.
Throughout the course of the training, which began in January and will run until March, students looking to join the court discuss the branches of government, legal statutes, constitutional amendments, Miranda rights, searches and seizures, sentencing procedures and restorative justice. Those who pass a bar exam are allowed to serve as clerks, defense attorneys or prosecutors for the youth court.
Offering a second chance
A diversion program for young offenders charged with certain misdemeanor crimes, the court allows young offenders a chance to have their cases heard by peers. During court sessions, middle- and high-school students act as judges, defense attorneys and prosecutors. Youth can request a trial, although many plead guilty or no contest, Espenshade said.
The court allows defendants a chance to take responsibility for their actions and learn from their mistakes without creating a permanent criminal record, said Espenshade, who serves as the court’s director.
“It’s a true second chance,” she said.
Proceedings are strictly confidential — talking about cases outside court would likely get participants expelled, Kenai Central High School student Zachary Stockton said.
Now 17, Stockton estimates he has participated in about 50 youth court trials since he joined the court in eighth grade.
“It’s a good way to help your community and interact with people you might not know,” Stockton said. “I see it as making a positive contribution.”
Stockton said the court gives youth offenders a taste of what a real court is like — those participating in court proceedings have to use formal language and obey the rules of the court.
For both offenders and members of the court, the experience can be an emotional one.
“It is pretty intense,” Stockton said. “There’s a lot at stake.”
Sentences for offenders can involve community service, an essay or poster project, apologies, education, counseling or restitution. While punitive, the sentences are also supposed to be restorative, Espenshade said.
For example, if offenders are sentenced to community service, the court tries to find something that will be meaningful.
“To help them feel better about themselves,” she said.
A healthier kind of peer pressure
Launched in 1996 with the help of Kenai Superior Court Judge Charles Cranston, the court is one of several across the state that allows youth to appear before a court of peers.
The youth court aims to use “positive peer pressure” to help steer youth away from repeating mistakes, Espenshade said.
“Often when kids are making choices that end them up in the back of a police car it’s because listened to other teens,” she said.
“The theory behind youth court is that kids are affected most by peer pressure and kids,” Sean Owens, chief probation officer for the South Central region of the Division of Juvenile Justice, said. “And so adults yammer at kids all the time and sort of get tuned out. Kids are more likely to listen to peers saying ‘you did something wrong.’”
Youth courts are independent from the Division of Juvenile Justice, but the division provides funding for their operations, Owens said. The division refers cases that they feel would be appropriate for the youth courts, allowing them to focus on more serious cases. Once a case has made its way through the youth court, it is sent back to the DJJ and closed. Owens said cases are classified as “adjusted” — which acknowledges that there was probable cause for the case, but cannot be used against defendants as adults.
While occasionally an offender who went through youth court proceedings reoffends, it’s fairly rare, Owens said.
Gaining life lessons
Watching cases from start to finish brings home the consequences of one’s actions, Kenai Central High School student Dominik Efta said. The 17-year-old has served as a judge, defense attorney and prosecutor since getting involved with the program three years ago.
He said the court gives him an opportunity to work with friends and other youth while getting a better handle on how the legal system works.
“I enjoy it,” he said.
The court not only provides intervention for offenders, but gives court members a leg up in their professional and personal development.
Jodi Stuart, a criminal justice technician who participated in the program from 1997 to 1999, said she got involved as a way to shore up her college resume. But the court ended up being much more than an extracurricular activity.
“I think the most I got out of it was the mentorship,” she said. “The ability to ask professionals pretty anything and everything.”
Students from youth court programs across the state have gone on to use their training in a number of ways — from service in criminal justice to becoming members of the state legislature, Espenshade said.
It also helps instill values of good citizenship and empathy in participants, she said.
“Empathy runs to all types of career and relationships,” she said.
The court has even brought some former offenders into the fold. Youth whose cases are heard through the court are encouraged to sign up and be a volunteer.
Espenshade said she’s seen second generations come through the court to participate, and in some cases, parents who once appeared as offenders are now sending their children to act as judges, lawyers and prosecutors.
“That’s a sign of success,” Espenshade said.