The Peer Court Experience

Without Question, numbers of things with our young people are not going well in out society today. Even worse, in several well-publicized situations our local government organizations have not only been unresponsive, but sometimes they have been a part of the problem. However, our citizens, parents and taxpayers should be aware that many things are going right, too. One of those successful and helpful programs is peer court (also known as youth court or teen court). We started our peer court in Orange County, California in 1994.

The purpose was to provide and institutional means for our young people to focus upon ethics, individual responsibility, the long-range importance in their lives of getting accurate information and making intelligent decisions based upon it, and the fact that they are important role models for others, especially their younger siblings.

Orange County’s 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 subject must admit the truth of the charged offense and, along with his/her parents, waive their rights to confidentiality. They personally appear at high school outside of their own school district (so that no one present knows them) with at least one parent.

A jury of students at the host high school is impaneled after short questioning to determine if they can be fair and impartial. A probation officer reads a statement of facts about the case, and then the subject about themselves, their backgrounds, the offense, or anything they feel would be important for the jury to know about the situation.

A sitting county judge presides over each of the sessions, and also asks questions; however the program is designed for most of the questioning to be done by the high school jurors. After enough questions are asked to enable to the jurors to feel that they have received sufficient information, the jury retires along with a volunteer adult attorney advisor to deliberate and reach a recommended sentence to the 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 them into the sentence. If the juvenile subject completes the sentence within four months, the underlying offense if dismissed. The only sanction for a failure to complete the sentence is to refer the underlying offense back to the district attorney for prosecution. Obviously, the district attorney must exercise appropriate discretion in making this decision; however, that office has stated that it will consider the subject’s failure of the diversion program as a “factor in aggravation” in whether or not to proceed. We stress that these are serious matters.

Even though juvenile records are still sealed for most purposes, there are always exceptions and the risks of having a criminal conviction should not be taken lightly.

James P. Gray is a Judge of the Superior Court in Orange County, California, the author of Why Our Drug Laws Have Failed And What We Can Do About It – A Judicial Indictment of the War on Drugs, Temple University Press (2001), and has a website at