Teen Court: In Hood River, teens try teens

The low murmur of voices in the courtroom is hushed as the judge sweeps through the door, takes his seat and opens a folder in front of him.

"All rise," says the bailiff. There's a pause and a scuffle as all in the courtroom scramble to their feet. "Hood River County Teen Court is now in session." Teen Court?

Teen Court.

Everyone sits.

"The business of this court is very serious," says the judge, Mike FitzSimons, who is really a lawyer in town but volunteers to preside at Teen Court every few weeks. "The defendants who appear before this court have violated a law of the State of Oregon and have voluntarily chosen to come here to have a jury of their peers impose sentence for these violations.

"All proceedings are confidential," FitzSimons continues. Everyone in the room is requested to take an oath of confidentiality.

Then, as happens in court, it's on to the business at hand. On this night two cases will be heard, two teen-age defendants sentenced with punishments a jury of their peers deems appropriate after hearing the details of each case. Two teenagers will leave with sentences to fulfill, but with the chance of having the misdeed that landed them here wiped from their record -- with, in the words of attorney and sometime Teen Court judge Brian Aaron, a second chance.

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Hood River County Teen Court was started about four years ago as an after-school program at Hood River Valley High School. A little over two years ago it moved under the umbrella of The Next Door where it has been ever since, most recently under the direction of coordinator Katie Folliard. Its funding comes largely from the Hood River County Commission on Children and Families, but Folliard calls it a "cooperative effort" involving many community members, the juvenile department and local lawyers.

Teen Court is an option for juvenile first-time offenders only -- those who admit their guilt. Most of the cases involve charges of minor-in-possession (tobacco, alcohol or drugs) and theft. Some cases are curfew violations.

"These are cases that would normally go through juvenile court," Folliard says. The advantage of Teen Court is that, if a sentence is fulfilled successfully, the offender's record is expunged. If the criteria fit and Teen Court is offered -- and accepted -- as an option, the defendant is assigned to one of the twice-monthly court nights held at the Hood River County Courthouse.

One of the unique things about Teen Court is that, not only is the jury made up of teenagers, the rest of the players -- with the exception of the judge -- are teenagers, too. Some of those involved once sat in the defendant's chair themselves; a mandatory part of any Teen Court sentence is the requirement of serving on at least one jury, and some teens continue to stay involved with the program as volunteers.

Others, like 15-year-old Loehn Rawdin Morris, are there because they're interested in law as a possible career.

"It would be a dream of mine to eventually go into law," Morris says. He's been a regular at Teen Court for a year-and-a-half and is now part of what Folliard calls the "court staff."

He's served in nearly every capacity at Teen Court -- as juror, bailiff, court clerk and defendant's representative. He's never been a defendant, but he thinks Teen Court is a successful way of dealing with youthful first-time offenders.

"It really helps that peers get to judge," he says. He thinks it has a big impact on offenders when they show up to Teen Court and it's all their peers handling the proceedings and making the decisions. "It's good peer pressure," he says. "It's more powerful than adults telling you what to do."

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A session of Teen Court works like this: After the necessary formalities, the defendant's violation is read by the court clerk and the defendant's representative reads aloud the facts of the case as detailed in the police report.

The representative then calls the defendant to the stand and questions him or her in order to provide more information for the jury. Members of the jury are then allowed to question the defendant directly, and being peers, they often ask tough questions that hit home -- like how their actions affected their parents and friends, what changes they're making to avoid trouble in the future, what punishments they received at home.

The representative can call another witness to the stand -- usually one of the defendant's parents -- for similar questioning. The whole process lasts about 20-30 minutes, then the jury is dismissed to deliberate on a sentence.

"Some kids come into (Teen Court) thinking that it's easier" than juvenile court, Folliard says. "We're trying to change that perception."

Teen Court jurors have a list of guidelines to follow when coming up with a sentence. In minor-in-possession cases, for example, they must follow juvenile court mandates that require drug and alcohol evaluations. They also have a list of possible sentences that include community service, a written apology, writing an essay, giving a presentation to a class or group, and restitution to a victim.

But once the jury heads to the deliberation room, it's all up to them to decide on a sentence -- one they feel is tailored to the offense and whatever punishment they've already received.

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Besides offering an alternative to juvenile court for defendants, Teen Court gives kids a chance to be involved in something where they feel they're making a difference.

Teresa Ocampo, 18, is a volunteer who first landed in Teen Court as a defendant.

"I got in trouble so I had to come here," she says with a sheepish grin. As part of her sentence, she was required to serve on three Teen Court juries.

"Then Katie asked me if I would keep doing it," she says. "She thought I asked good questions." Ocampo and Morris are part of a core group of about 15 "really committed" teens that Folliard calls on frequently to serve at Teen Court.

"I like it," Ocampo says, "because I have a say in what happens."

Folliard tries to get a wide range of kids involved in the program. "I want them to think of it as an extra-curricular activity," she says. "A lot of them don't really mix" outside of Teen Court, she adds, but they come together twice a month to work together to do an important job.

Attorney Aaron, who's been involved with Teen Court since its inception, touts all aspects of Teen Court.

"It's just a good program," he says. "Every kid makes mistakes." Plus, by diverting "kids" out of the legal system, it allows valuable (and limited) resources to be used "pursuing the real criminals.

"And it gives (teens) a chance to see how the system works," he says. "Maybe they get a little education out of it, too."

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In the most recent session of Teen Court, two separate teen juries come up with sentences for the 15- and 12-year-old defendants. The sentences, for theft and minor-in-possession charges, include letters of apology, no unexcused absenses at school and serving jury duties. (Folliard requested the Hood River News be vague with respect to details of the cases.)

The defendants will have 90 days to carry out their sentences. After a period of six months, a small group of Teen Court volunteers will meet to review each case. They can either dismiss them -- at which time the offender's record is cleared -- or extend the deadline for the sentence requirements to be completed. The third option is for the case to be referred back to the juvenile department.

"The kids get to close out the file," Folliard says. "It puts it back in the their hands."

Folliard is continually fine-tuning the program, making sure it works for both defendants and the volunteers who make it possible.

"You can't change a kid through a program, but you can give a kid a chance to make better choices," she says. "This is kind of a wake-up call."

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