As reported in the Athens Banner-Herald, local teens are getting the real-life experience of a court proceeding with a judge and a bailiff. Attorneys even consult with their clients who are first-time offenders of minor crimes like shoplifting or fighting. Jurors then determine how respondents will make restitution for their crimes.
Created by Emily Boness, a public service associate at the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, and Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court Judge Robin Shearer, Athens’ peer court has tried over 580 cases. A partnership between the Fanning Institute, a UGA Public Service and Outreach unit, and the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court System, the peer court is now in its seventh year.
Fairly common throughout the country, there aren’t many peer courts in Georgia. The idea is to hold juvenile offenders accountable and also give them an opportunity to participate in community service that can expunge their records instead of having them serve jail time for minor offenses.
Heard and decided sooner than county court cases, the recidivism rate for peer court participants is a lot lower than the rate for statewide youth offenders.
For Boness and other Fanning faculty who work on the program, it was vital that the Athens court was led by the middle and high school students. That involves continually training new student volunteers from local middle and high schools to serve as attorneys, bailiffs, judges and jury members. The training focuses on teaching students how to interview a respondent (or defendants in traditional court settings), how to create opening and closing statements, and how to identify aggravating and mitigating factors in a case.
UGA law students guide and help volunteers prepare for their cases.
“Peer court allows the youth volunteers to learn practical skills like public speaking, persuasive writing and collaboration towards a common goal,” said Ansley Whiten, a second-year law student. “The first-time juvenile offenders also get a lot out of the program because it gives them a second chance. It still holds them accountable for what they have done, without perpetuating the idea that they are part of the ‘system’ now.”
The jury determines how much community service, within baseline sentencing guidelines for the specific crime, the respondent must complete and whether a written and/or oral apology is necessary. After completing their assigned community service, most of the respondents return to serve on peer court themselves.
“We hope they feel a sense of ‘I got to tell what happened. I saw my peers serving in a community leadership role. I was positively influenced by them,’” Boness said.
“They see other teenagers in leadership roles, and therefore can see themselves there, too,” said Matt Bishop, director of the Fanning Institute. “Peer court would be a great addition to any community’s efforts to develop leadership skills in youth. The process is positive and that helps to positively influence the offenders to stay involved — on the right side of the law next time.”
More than 300 middle and high school students have served on the Athens peer court. One of those students is Clarke Central High School junior Maya Cornish. She has served on peer court for four years.
“These are peers doing something for each other and just trying to help improve the community,” she said. “We’re trying to teach other kids that they can be so much more. They can actually grow from this experience.”
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