Teen Court program puts offenders before a jury of their peers

March 11, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

FORT WORTH, Texas -- In a wood-paneled courtroom packed with adolescents, 16-year-old Brandy Hommel is on trial.

Her crime: driving 80 mph in a 55 mph zone.

"She endangered the lives of others because she was late for the movies," sneers prosecutor Brad Smith, 17, in his closing remarks.

Defense lawyer Kayce Bingham, a high school junior, flips back her hair and adjusts her skirt before facing the jury. She ends her plea by exclaiming: "I just ask for a fair and just verdict."

The panel of six teen-agers is unimpressed. After 10 minutes of deliberation, Brandy is ordered to serve 38 hours of community service. Once again justice is served in Teen Court, an alternative sentencing program where teen-agers charged with misdemeanors plead guilty in exchange for having their penalty set by their peers.

Although teen juries can't order fines or jail time, they can, for example, sentence offenders to serve hours of community service, to offer apologies or to write 1,000-word essays. When the sentence is complete, the violation is dropped from the defendant's record. The only adult involved in the proceedings is the presiding judge.

Founded in the west Texas oil town of Odessa in 1983, Teen Courts have spread, in various forms, to at least 10 states including California and Florida.

In Tampa, Fla., although traffic violations are not heard in Teen Court, offenses such as marijuana and weapons possession clog the docket. In San Francisco, defendants who choose Teen Court must also attend a self-esteem seminar as part of the process.

In Los Angeles, Teen Court has taken a Hollywood twist. With county approval, a program has been setup by Group W television and videotaped as the pilot for a proposed TV show much like "People's Court." A county juvenile court judge presides.

Despite regional differences, the objective of Teen Court is the same: to hold teen-agers responsible for their crimes.

"It's too easy for mom and dad to make it go away by paying the fine," says Linda Blair, director of Fort Worth's Teen Court.

Sentencing a teen-ager to community service is a punishment that will make a lasting impression, says 16-year-old Fort Worth prosecutor Danny Tobey. "A teen-ager's most precious commodity is time. Take that away and the defendant really sees the consequences of his actions."

Teen Court has been in session every Monday evening in Fort Worth's Public Safety courthouse since 1987. About 650 teen-agers go through the system yearly, facing punishment for misdeeds ranging from underage drinking to simple assault. Local lawyers volunteer to teach aspiring attorneys basic trial advocacy: How to make opening remarks and enter evidence, the art of cross-examination, grounds for objection.

This is serious business for adolescents who are not old enough to vote, drink liquor or in some cases, drive.

"One time I had an illegal lane change case, and I had to ask, like, 'What is that?' I don't even drive yet and I'm defending this guy," remembers 15-year-old defense lawyer Becky Gilbert.

The court offers defendants a chance to plead their case before what they hope is a sympathetic jury.

"These are kids like me, who I can talk to without getting nervous. They know what's going on, and how things like this happen," says 16-year-old Robert Coleman Jr., who was ticketed for running a stop sign.

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