A thesis makes the case for teen court and wins

Law: A St. Mary's College senior's project was the motivation behind St. Mary's County's court for first-time juvenile offenders.

February 12, 2003|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

LEONARDTOWN - Jimmy Breeden, representing the state of Maryland in a disorderly conduct case, paced the hallway in the county courthouse, reviewing his notes before his client's hearing. He looked every part the prosecutor - conservative gray suit, yellow legal pad in hand - except for this:

He is 14 years old. Breeden was taking part in St. Mary's County's new teen court, a program that allows first-time juvenile offenders to be sentenced by a jury of their peers, in a real courtroom where everyone from lawyers to bailiffs is a teen-ager.

Teen courts have been running in counties across the state for several years, but the St. Mary's version arrives with a twist. It is not the creation of an inventive judge or social worker, but the brainchild of a local college student who used her senior thesis to make the case for a peer court in the southern Maryland county.

It was April 2001 when Elsie Bailey, then a senior at St. Mary's College, delivered a presentation to county officials showing the benefits of teen courts she had studied in Anne Arundel County and Baltimore.

Less than two years later, the academic thesis has become reality, thanks to rare bureaucratic cooperation and some old-fashioned college alumni networking. In recent weeks, the court has heard its first cases, and organizers are overwhelmed with teens wanting to volunteer as jurors and lawyers.

"Everyone agreed it was something we should pursue. The program literally took on a life of its own," said Joe Anderson, a county commissioner when the court was created. "I've been involved in a number of programs in the community, and never seen one that progressed so quickly in so short a time."

Bailey's proposal was done as her "St. Mary's Project," independent study required of most seniors at the small public liberal arts college in St. Mary's City. The idea grew out of her experience as a high school student in Texas, where she had been on a teen court.

After six months of interviewing officials in Baltimore and Anne Arundel County, she found that their teen courts together processed nearly 400 defendants per year. Each court cost about $90,000 a year and had sanction completion rates of 70 percent to 90 percent, with recidivism rates below 10 percent.

The program, she told St. Mary's officials, could save money by taking minor cases out of the regular juvenile courts. More important, she said, it would give local teens a sense of responsibility and exposure to the justice system.

And, because teen courts typically erase arrests from defendants' records if they complete their sanctions, it would give young offenders a chance at redemption.

Initially skeptical, local officials were convinced when they confirmed how successful such programs had been around the state, including in nearby Charles County.

A steering committee was formed and a coordinator hired. The coordinator, Wendy Povitsky, is paid by AmeriCorps' VISTA program. Povitsky, youth coordinator Kelsey Bush and Daniel Slade, a local lawyer who serves as the teen court judge, are all recent St. Mary's graduates.

The sheriff's office agreed to forward possible teen court cases to Povitsky, who makes sure they meet the conditions: Defendants must be first-time offenders, and the charges must be misdemeanors, such as minor assaults, thefts or alcohol and marijuana possession.

The defendants must admit their guilt before going before the teen jurors, who then decide on a sentence. After listening to arguments from the "prosecution" and the "defense" about the severity of the offense, jurors deliberate in private and return sanctions - typically a mix of community service, counseling and apology letters.

At first, skeptics worried that the jurors would be too easy on their peers - that, as Slade said, "they aren't going to jack up one of their friends."

Instead, he said, the opposite has happened in St. Mary's and elsewhere. Jurors hand out tougher sanctions, and often more creative ones, than a judge might. A teen-ager who drove while intoxicated might have to ride with an ambulance for a night. One who drove onto a lawn might have to repair it, not just pay for the work.

"It helps the juveniles because they're going out into the community and learning that what they did really affected the community," said Slade.

The teen volunteers undergo training from local lawyers and give a pledge not to violate the confidentiality of the cases.

There have been minor glitches: At the first hearing, the defense lawyer recommended a harsher sentence than the prosecution.

Before the disorderly conduct hearing, several jurors said they volunteered because they're interested in becoming lawyers. Breeden, the day's prosecutor, said he wants to become a police officer and felt the court would "be a good chance to see how the criminal justice system works."

The teen court is a good idea, he said, because teen-agers are often better judges of juvenile delinquency - they can better understand their peers' reasons for breaking the law, and they can see through some excuses.

Randy Pinkerton, who served as lawyer in a previous session, told Breeden and the day's other lawyers how to organize their opening statements. It was important, the high school junior said, to "be yourself" and not talk in legalese.

"You can't be a big stiff," he said.

Watching it all was Bailey. She was pleased, but not surprised, she said, that her thesis had led to this crowd of teen-agers in a courthouse, upholding the law.

"It's wonderful, but I knew it would eventually come into effect," she said. "There were too many people talking about how good an idea it is."

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