Stanislaus County Youth Court: Peers judge offenders
Jan 21, 2013 (The Modesto Bee - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
Two teenage brothers on a trip to Vintage Faire Mall in Modesto to buy a sweater instead walked out of the store with three $18 bottles of Ecko brand cologne without paying for it. Testifying in Youth Court recently, they explained to a jury of their peers why they decided to steal.
"I was going to buy it, but I didn't have enough money," one of the boys said.
Alexis Moran of Riverbank was just like these boys in fall 2010. It brings back so many memories for her, good and bad.
"I know what they're feeling; I feel sorry for them," Moran said.
She had been caught shoplifting at a Target store and was referred to Youth Court, a program designed to straighten out first-time offenders before their crimes escalate.
Now an 18-year-old college student, Moran works as a mentor with attorneys in Youth Court and is seeking a career counseling families and at-risk teens.
"It helped me realize I can help people who've gotten in trouble," Moran said about Youth Court. "I could help them turn around their lives."
She is one of the success stories of the diversion program started 20 years ago and run by the nonprofit Center for Human Services. The program gives teenage offenders more attention than they typically would get from a Juvenile Court judge or a busy probation officer.
Kate Trompetter, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit, said the offenders are kids who have not committed serious crimes before. A majority of them, she said, become law-abiding young adults after Youth Court.
"But that's not where they are when they come to see us," Trompetter said.
Moran was just shy of her 16th birthday, but she had shoplifted two or three times before she was caught. She had stolen clothes, shoes and accessories from the same store before anyone took notice.
"I can't think why I did it; I wasn't thinking," Moran said about her mind-set when she was caught.
Empathy for victims
Instead of facing a Juvenile Court judge, Moran and her parents chose to leave her fate up to other teenagers in a Youth Court jury. Her punishment: She paid a $365 fine, completed 16 hours of community serv-ice, served as a juror four times and attended a course designed to teach youths the impact of theft on victims.
Moran said the course was the more impactful portion of her punishment. She never considered the possible financial impact on the store or its employees. She returned the stolen items to the store.
She was forced to confront her crime in Youth Court, and Moran said she now feels uncomfortable walking into a store, reminded each time of the crime she committed.
"I know I will never steal again," Moran said. "I know if I kept doing it, I would end up with nothing."
She said she shoplifted to get her parents' attention, upset that she was forced to start the 10th grade at Enochs High School after being home-schooled since the seventh grade.
After her Youth Court verdict, she publicly apologized to her parents.
"Knowing that I hurt my mom and I hurt my dad, it hurt me," Moran said.
The court's staff members recognized that Moran was remorseful, so they encouraged her to return and volunteer as an attorney. She acted as a defense attorney and a prosecutor.
"I loved the defense side more, because I got to connect with the clients and hear their side of the story," Moran said.
Hearings in Oakdale, Modesto
She's in her second semester at Modesto Junior College, studying human services. She plans on transferring to California State University, Sacramento, to gain a bachelor's degree and ultimately earn a master's degree in child and family counseling. Moran wants to continue to be a mentor with the Youth Court program in Sacramento County.
The program conducts hearings once a month in Oakdale and twice a month in Modesto.
In April, Youth Court will move its Modesto hearings to the Modesto City Schools boardroom. With a closer connection with the school district, Trompetter said, it's possible some student offenders can participate in Youth Court instead of being sent to detention. But that's just an idea, she said.
It was an incident at Mae Hensley Junior High School in Ceres that sent Alyssa Brister to Youth Court last year. Someone in a girl's bathroom overheard Alyssa making verbal threats to beat up another girl. School officials were informed.
When her father, Chuck Brister, learned of the incident, he was shocked.
"She wasn't a bad kid to begin with," he said about his 14-year-old daughter. "She had never been in any kind of trouble like that."
The Youth Court jury sentenced her to serve as a juror eight times and complete 16 hours of community service. She had to publicly apologize to her dad at her hearing.
"He started crying," Alyssa said. "It was hard for me to apologize. I didn't know how to put it in words."
No more threats
She's in her first year at Whitmore Charter High School, and she said her grades have improved. After completing her punishment, she returned to Youth Court as a volunteer courtroom clerk. And she's said she won't make threats again.
"Making mistakes like that will affect your school, it will affect your job, it'll be on your record," Alyssa said.
Her dad said Alyssa now stops herself to consider there are consequences to her actions; she doesn't just react to her frustrations.
"It scared her a lot," Brister said about his daughter's experience in Youth Court. "It woke her up to reality."
The Youth Court opened its proceedings, which are usually confidential, to The Bee last week. In return, The Bee agreed not to print the defendants' names or photograph their faces.
As for the teenage brothers caught stealing cologne from the mall, the jury decided they have to serve as jurors six times each, serve dozens of hours of community service and attend the anti-theft course. They also had to stand up and apologize to their grandmother.
Dan Hilgen, an Oakdale police community service officer who volunteered as the judge, informed the 16- and 14-year-old boys that their record will be wiped clean once they complete their sentence. They won't get another shot at Youth Court.
"This is a one-time deal," Hilgen told the boys. "This is where it stops for you. It's your choice."
Bee staff writer Rosalio Ahumada can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2394.
YOUTH COURT BASICS
--Started in 1993, the program is an alternative to the juvenile justice system geared toward first-time offenders who commit misdemeanors. Defendants must be 17 or younger when the offense was committed; a $25 fee is required.
--The typical offenses include shoplifting, assault, theft, vandalism and possession of alcohol, drugs or graffiti materials.
--Some defendants are referred to Youth Court after a school violation, such as a fight on campus.
--Referrals to Youth Court generally come from law enforcement officials, but some come from school officials and parents.
--Some teenagers first come to Youth Court as defendants and are required to return again as jurors, bailiffs or court clerks as part of their punishment.
--Some former defendants might act as attorneys if they participate in a training class.
--The youth offender has to be a willing participant, and Youth Court staff members interview each youth before they determine whether he or she is qualified to participate.
--The program is designed to make youthful offenders or rule-breaking students take the consequences of their actions more seriously.
--Once they complete their punishment, the offenders' records are cleared.
--Other teenagers participate because they want to volunteer or learn about the legal system. The program is open to volunteers ages 12 to 18.
Youth Court in Modesto and Oakdale, run by the Center for Human Services, has had impressive results in surveys with former defendants and parents:
--83 percent of participants reported no further arrests or contact with law enforcement in the year after participating in Youth Court.
--82 percent of parents said their children's ability to make decisions greatly improved after going to Youth Court.
--81 percent of participants said their relationship with their parents or guardians improved.
--84 percent of participants who came to Youth Court later served as jurors, attorneys, bailiffs or clerks.
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