[Noozhawk’s note: First in a series. Click here for a related article. Click here for a third article.]

With a slight nervousness, a group of youngsters filed into the nearly empty courtroom and sat down in the jury box. Parents, guardians and mentors quietly took their seats in the audience, a safe distance back from the proceedings.

An adult strode to the front and soberly addressed the youths.

“Tonight, you are the law,” he said to a few giggles as smiles began to spread slowly across the young faces.

The introduction marked the beginning of a Teen Court mock trial designed to help youths in Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse programs understand the workings of the law and the criminal justice system.

Teen Court is a diversion program for first-time juvenile offenders. Most of the evening’s participants — ages 10 through 16 — were part of CADA’s Fighting Back Mentor Program.

The Teen Court concept takes a different approach than the Santa Barbara County Superior Court-administered juvenile justice system. For one, the offender must admit guilt before he or she is admitted into the program. Other than the judge and the defendant, all of the courtroom roles are filled by teenage volunteers and former Teen Court defendants.

Superior Court Judge Thomas Adams started the local Teen Court program more than a decade ago.

Before the evening’s trial got under way, he spoke with the participants.

“I just want to tell you a little story,” he said. “Last week, I had four young people come into my courtroom. Some of them had already been convicted of murder. It’s serious business when people come into a courtroom like this.”

Any remaining giggles were silenced. But Adams’ statement underscored some of the obstacles to establishing a Teen Court program: how to get kids to take a court case seriously and to get them to rise to the responsibility.

The groundwork for Teen Court began percolating in 1992 when Adams, during a flight layover in Dallas, read an article about a woman behind a fledgling Teen Court in Odessa, Texas.

Adams was intrigued, so he spent a week in West Texas learning more about Teen Court from this “darling” lady.

“I came back with the idea of bringing this youth court model to Santa Barbara,” he said. “Immediately the brakes came on because the district attorneys and Probation Department said, ‘Oh, no, Your Honor, you don’t put kids in a court of law. There’s no way kids can be responsible to do this.’”

But Adams was persistent.

Typically, when a teenager goes through the traditional juvenile justice system, he or she is sentenced to probation. It costs about $4,800 to supervise a minor on probation, while it costs only about $500 to send a kid to Teen Court.

A jury of teenagers is sworn in for a Teen Court proceeding. For many youth, their first exposure to the criminal justice system has a lasting impact.

A jury of teenagers is sworn in for a Teen Court proceeding. For many youth, their first exposure to the criminal justice system has a lasting impact. (Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse file photo)

According to Adams, that balance is what sold the idea of Teen Court: The Probation Department wouldn’t have to handle petty cases and taxpayers would save money.

“It became magical,” he said. “All of a sudden it was working, and working beautifully. I’d even say the Teen Court juries are tougher than I am. Young people are not conned by other young people.”

Most defendants who are diverted into Teen Court locally are accused of and have taken responsibility for petty theft, minor in possession of alcohol or drugs, vandalism and other minor offenses. They are referred either by the Probation Department or the Santa Barbara School District.

The typical sentence, determined by a jury of peers, includes a sentence of two to six nights of Teen Court jury duty, one or more classes provided by CADA, maybe a letter of apology or essay, and required participation in CADA’s Parent Program by a parent or guardian of the offender.

And the bonus? With the successful completion of a sentence, the minor avoids having any offense placed on his or her record.

“When the kids write their college applications or job applications in the future and have to answer that question ‘Have you ever been convicted of a crime?’ they can say no,” said Ed Cué, Teen Court’s longtime program director who shepherds youngsters and their parents through the process.

“Essentially, they get that second chance, and that’s the purpose of Teen Court: to give kids a second chance.”

But it’s not only that the kids avoid a court record. Teen Court provides a safe environment for them to build confidence and prepare for a brighter future.

“The teens have so much potential and we want to encourage them to grow in a positive manner,” explained Kristine Pendon, Teen Court case manager and volunteer coordinator.

“We want to present all the information we can for them to make the best decision for themselves. And I feel if you put them up to the task, they will rise to it. If you hold them accountable and if you give them that respect, they’ll rise to it.”

Pendon also cited the role of community volunteers who help Teen Court fulfill its goal of stopping the pattern of crime before it’s too late to get a second chance in the eyes of the traditional court system.

And Teen Court has been very successful at doing that. Officials say 92 percent of clients complete Teen Court successfully, 90 percent of them won’t reoffend after the first six months, and 87 percent won’t after the first year.

“If we can see that there’s some sustainability in what they’ve learned, then there are good things happening,” Cué said. “There’s some consciousness and effort.

“The whole idea is to reduce the amount of damage that can be done within that early time frame. And what’s more important is that kids are helping kids do that.”

But how effective can a program run by teenagers really be? How can offenders really learn from their crimes if they’re not being punished with a sentence as severe as jail time or probation?

The duality of Teen Court answers these questions. Not only does the program focus on providing a sentence, but it places a huge amount of importance and effort on the follow-through — the future of each individual client.

Pendon said one teen’s story stands out for her, and exemplifies the uniqueness of Teen Court and the individual attention it places on each of its clients.

“He first came in, I believe, on a petty theft case, but didn’t complete his sentence within the 90-day period,” Pendon related. “So he came back the second time around and started to take it a little more seriously, and we gave him even more support. He started coming around more, completing his contract more consistently.

“He was someone who didn’t have really any family support, (and was) pretty much on his own. I believe he was involved in gangs; he had been using alcohol and drugs.

But after he started participating in Teen Court, the boy’s attitude started to change, Pendon said.

“He wanted to be here, he asked us questions about how to improve his life,” she said. “The really great thing about it was seeing him transform from this kid who didn’t really have a direction or support, and then seeing him create goals for himself, seeing him want to change himself in a more positive light.”

This particular client still works at Teen Court, and has taken a leadership position in one of the many educational classes the program provides. Click here for a related list of youth and parent services offered by CADA.

The process of going through Teen Court allows kids to learn more about how the legal system works and understand themselves a little better as well.

“When they receive their certificate of completion, they get this big smile on their face like, ‘I did everything?’” Pendon said. “And I say, ‘Yes, you took responsibility!’

“That says something about themselves — that they can do something if they really apply themselves to whatever they want to do.”

The bottom line, Cué and Pendon both emphasized, is that these teens need people who care about them and who hold them accountable. What’s really influential, they say, is the effect of their peers.

“An old guy like me doesn’t influence them,” Cué said. “But when another kid is telling you, ‘Hey, man, you really need to get some help,’ they listen.

“Much more than it is just a punitive sentence given by Teen Court, it’s built in the spirit that it’s a constructive sentence. It’s built on positive change that not only do we, the adult, want to see, but also their peers. … Much more often than not the kids are able to accept that.”

There are more than 1,200 Teen Courts across the United States now, and Santa Barbara County’s program sees about 600 cases a year.

In juvenile court there is no jury and typically the juvenile in trouble is not heard from. It is an atmosphere with the attitude that “someone will be convicted today,” as Adams explained.

Teen Court, however, allows the jury and audience to question the offender, who has already admitted he or she has committed the crime. There is no arguing, just explaining. The jury and audience get to really try to understand why the crime was committed and what underlying factors there were (such as family issues) so the jury can come up with a sentence that will most benefit the offender in the future, not just dole out punishment for the past.

Gang Awareness and Conflict Resolution classes help make Teen Court a much more positive alternative to juvenile court, officials say. And the classes are much more valuable in the long run than jail time or probation because they help develop confidence and life skills before petty crime spirals into gang violence and other life-destroying activities.

“In a prior career I worked with the California Department of Youth Authority, which is juvenile correction and really is the last stop for a minor before they go to the Department of Corrections,” Cué said.

“I worked with murderers and gang members, people who had done terrible things. But intermixed with all that, there were just teenagers who had gotten caught up in some mess that had just gotten totally out of hand, and all of a sudden they found themselves in this situation they couldn’t get out of. 

“As adults, we think we’re going to scare teenagers not to break the law by creating laws that are so punitive that they’d be crazy to do it,” he continued. “But that doesn’t work because teenagers don’t think that way. They commit the offense and then find out, ‘Wow, I’m in so much trouble.’ They act on impulse and then they react to the consequence.”

For Cué, Teen Court changes things.

“What happens if we can save them before that all happens?” he asked. “We needed to do something to really educate them, to give them some experience at the front so that they start really looking at and thinking a little differently — hesitating just a second, because that hesitation before making that impulsive decision might be life saving.

“I think Teen Court has done that. It does it over and over and over again.”

» Click here for more information on how to get involved in Teen Court, or call program director Ed Cué at 805.730.7575 x121.

» Click here for more information about the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse.

» Like the Council on Alcoholism & Drug Abuse on Facebook. Follow CADA on Twitter: @CADASB.

» Click here for a related Noozhawk article on the Fighting Back Mentor Program.

» Click here for a related Noozhawk article on the Fighting Back Parent Program.

Noozhawk intern Erin Stone can be reached at estone@noozhawk.com. Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Become a fan of Noozhawk on Facebook.