All right, I agree that numbers of things with our young people are not going well in our world today, and I have certainly seen enough of that when I was sitting in juvenile court. But people should also be aware that many good things are happening too, and one of them is Peer Court.

  The purpose of Peer Court is twofold. First it is to provide a means for young people to avoid a criminal conviction if they show they have learned from their past misdeeds. The second is to provide young people with a chance to focus upon ethics, individual responsibility, the long-range importance of making intelligent decisions, and the fact that they are important role models for others, especially their younger siblings.

  Peer Court is a diversion program that presents real juvenile court cases that are carefully screened by the probation department to high school “jurors.” The juvenile subjects must admit the truth of the charged offense and waive their rights to confidentiality of the proceedings. Then they personally appear with at least one parent at a high school outside of their own school district (so that no one present knows them).  

  The session begins with a probation officer reading a statement of facts about the case. Then the subject and parent(s) are sworn and given an opportunity to make a statement about themselves, their backgrounds, the offense, or anything they feel would be important for the jury to know about the situation. An actual judge presides over each of the sessions, and also asks questions both to the subject and the parents. But the program is designed for most of the questioning to be done by the high school jurors.  

After the jurors feel they have received sufficient information, they retire along with a volunteer adult attorney advisor to deliberate and formulate a recommended sentence to give to the judge. The attorney advisor tries to keep the jury focused, but does not participate in the deliberations.

  When the jury returns, the judge reviews the recommendations and tries to incorporate as many of them as possible into the sentence of the subject. If the juvenile subject completes the sentence within four months, the underlying offense is dismissed. The only sanction for a failure to complete the sentence is to refer the underlying offense back to the district attorney for prosecution.  

  Peer Court sentences can include virtually anything except incarceration or the payment of a fine. They frequently include community service, such as picking up trash in a park, graffiti removal or working with the sick, injured or elderly at local medical institutions; individual or family counseling; restitution to the victims of the offense; completion of alcohol or other drug abuse programs; writing letters of apology to the victims of the offense or their own parents, or essays about what they have learned from this experience; being ordered to attend school regularly and attend all classes; and participating as a juror in a future peer court session.

  Without a doubt it would be less costly and time consuming to have the probation department implement a diversion program without Peer Court. But even though Peer Court has a history of success with the individual juvenile subjects and their parents, the real impact of the program is to pursue those “teachable moments” not only with the subjects themselves, but also with the jurors and other high school students in attendance.  

For example, when jurors ask a parent one of the “sample” questions like “Why don’t you know who your child’s friends are?” both the parents as well as all of the young people in the audience start to focus upon the fact that young people actually expect a parent to parent. Jurors also ask the subjects things like if they want their younger siblings to smoke marijuana. When they say “no,” those in attendance start to focus on the fact that if the older sibling smokes marijuana, no matter what is said, the younger sibling will probably follow the lead of the older. As a result, the students realize that they are mentors for their younger brothers and sisters, and the examples they set are important. These are valuable lessons that are often not learned elsewhere.

  Petty theft is also a big problem with young people. Frequently those subjects are asked if they have ever had something stolen from them. If so, the judge or jurors ask how they felt when the theft was first discovered. And then follow up by saying something like, “Tell the truth, didn’t you want to throttle the person who took that item from you? Do you think your victim felt any differently? Is that what you want to inflict upon other people?”  

  The subjects are also asked things like if they actually are a thief. Yes it is true that they stole something on that particular occasion, but did their parents raise them to be a thief? After a few more questions, the judge or jurors center the discussion onto the fact that it really is easy to steal, and most often it can be done without anyone discovering who did it. But people like us do not do that. Why? Not because of possible punishment, but because “I am better than that! Even though no one else will know, I will, and that is not who I am.”

  Peer Court also focuses upon other matters of behavior by young people as well, such as courtesy and respect. For example, we are still old fashioned enough to believe that a man does not sit down before first helping his mother to be seated. If one of our male subjects sits down first, we take the time to make both mother and son stand up again and then be seated the respectful way. Similarly our judges will make comments like they are sorry the subject does not take these proceedings more seriously – because if they did, they would tuck in their shirt, or wear more appropriate attire, etc. before coming to our peer court hearings.

  We also frequently ask the subjects what their lives will be like ten years from now. Mostly they will respond with the laudable goals of wanting to go to a good college and to have a good job. Then we congratulate them on their goals, but also ask what they are doing now to accomplish those goals. And we follow up with questions like “Do you think that the registrar at any college or a good employer will want to admit or hire a thief? Did you think about that before shoplifting at the department store?” We also ask the subjects what they feel about the eventual success of the people they “hang out with,” pointing out to the subjects the honest statement that: “You show me your friends, I will show you your future.”

  But we always try to end our sessions on a positive note. In appropriate cases, we tell the subjects that we believe this never will happen again, and that there is simply no reason why they cannot enjoy happy, successful and satisfying lives. Along those lines we often ask the jurors for a show of hands as to how many of them agree with us that the chances are good for this subject. Mostly the by this time the young people in the audience agree with us, and say so. 

  We are proud of our peer court program, and have found that the concept of young people delivering justice to their peers works. This program assists young people to confront and address the impact of their behavior upon their victims, their families, their future wives or husbands and future children, as well as themselves. And along the way large numbers our young people are learning critical citizenship, responsibility and skills. In summary, peer courts are doing some good things, and I thought you would like to hear about it.

Judge Jim Gray (Ret.)