In alternative court, students answer to a jury of peers
The eighth-grade defendant takes the stand inside the courtroom in Nevada County Superior Court. He’s charged with misdemeanor battery for instigating a fight on a school bus.
Over the next half hour or so, under the watch of presiding Judge Candace Heidelberger, he’ll be questioned about the incident. But the questions won’t come from licensed attorneys; they’ll come from high school students, one acting as the defense and one acting as the prosecution.
And his fate won’t be decided by the judge; his punishment will be handed out by a jury of his peers.
After hearing both student attorneys question the eighth-grader charged with fighting, the jury asks a few follow-up questions — Were the witnesses of the incident friends of his or the victim? Did the fight happen on school grounds? — before leaving to deliberate.
After about 20 minutes, they return with their decision.
The student is a defendant in peer court. The program, administered through the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools in collaboration with the Nevada County Superior Court, is designed to combat delinquency by giving first-time, low-level juvenile offenders an alternative option to the traditional justice system.
“The peer court process is really about a group of juveniles making a determination about an appropriate sentence for another student,” said Melissa Parrett, who coordinates the program for the Nevada County Superintendent of Schools.
The diversion program began in 1995 after a group of educators, district attorneys and judges heard a presentation about peer courts and decided to bring the program to Nevada County.
The peer court, which holds sessions on the first and third Tuesday of each month, typically hears between 16 and 20 cases each school year, Parrett said.
Offenders are recommended for the peer court program by their probation officer; in order to participate, they must plead guilty to the offense they are accused of and waive their right to confidentiality.
If they complete the sentence issued by their peers — which usually involves a combination of community service, class presentations and letters of apology — they avoid a juvenile court record.
Students throughout the county in grades 8-12 can volunteer to sit on the jury, or to act as the court bailiff or clerk. High school students can volunteer to act as the defense and prosecuting attorneys; on each case, they’re paired with a practicing attorney who acts as their mentor, answering questions and giving advice.
Members of the jury are sworn in and vetted to ensure that they can make a fair decision. The student lawyers can call witnesses to the stand and both the lawyers and jury members have access to any police report that was filed for the case.
Peer court isn’t a stripped-down version of a traditional courtroom, said Sara Messervey, a junior at Ghidotti Early College High School who frequently participates in peer court as a lawyer — it’s a hands-on experience with the justice system for all participants.
“There’s a lot of pressure involved in peer court,” Messervey said. “As a juror, you have to make sure you’re giving the right sentence to this person, and as an attorney, there’s pressure to make sure you’re doing a good job, whatever side you’re on.”
The court runs on the belief that peers can connect with defendants in a way that adults cannot.
“If you bring a kid in who’s a first-time, low-level offender to just see a judge, I don’t think it really clicks in their brains,” said Heidelberger, who has frequently presided over peer court since 2011.
However, she said, peer court requires the defendant to participate in the system, answering questions and explaining actions.
When the sentence is handed down in peer court, Heidelberger said, defendants are “better able to accept it, because it’s been handed out by their peers through a process, rather than some adult just telling them they have to do x, y and z.”
Messervey said she’s seen the effect that the peer-driven process has on defendants.
“When I’ve talked to kids who go up there, they say it’s absolutely humiliating to go up in front of all these kids and have it all laid out there,” Messervey said. “It’s nerve-wracking to sit up there in the witness chair and talk about what you did and why it was wrong in front of all these people.”
Heidelberger noted that students have an impressive ability to read defendants and get a sense for whether the student is remorseful for their actions.
One difference from traditional court is that before the jury is dismissed to discuss sentencing, jury members are allowed to question the defendant — and their questions are sharp, Heidelberger said.
“They are questions that not even the two attorneys think to ask,” she said. “You can see their brains working, you can see that they’re trying to apply the punishment to the crime.”
That’s because members of a peer jury are better equipped to put themselves in the defendant’s position and decide what will make them think twice about their actions, Messervey said.
“Students have a better understanding of what they’re thinking, why they did it and what will be more effective in stopping them,” Messervey said.
Parrett said the county superintendent of schools office doesn’t track recidivism rates among participants in peer court; she said once a peer court case is closed, she isn’t notified if a particular student re-offends.
She did say, however, that it’s rare that a student goes through the program and doesn’t fulfill the requirements of their sentencing; last year, she said, 13 out of 15 peer court defendants completed the requirements of their sentence.
Heidelberger said she believes the program is successful based on what she sees in her courtroom.
“Kids who come in as defendants, I very rarely see them not complete their sanctions, and I very rarely see them come back into the justice system,” she said.
Students who appear in peer court are required to take a tour of juvenile hall and serve twice on a peer court jury as a part of their sentence; in addition, the jury sentences the defendant to eight hours of community service and require him to write a letter of apology to the victim.
The experience in peer court is a valuable one, said Parrett — both for the defendants, who are given a chance to correct their behavior, and for the student participants, who not only learn how the justice system operates but are able to play an active part in it.
“I see a lot of value in kids problem-solving and learning to take all of the components of a situation into account and to really work on providing the student who got into trouble with the tools to be more successful instead of just punishing them,” Parrett said.
To contact Staff Writer Emily Lavin, email email@example.com or call 530-477-4230.
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