Starting this October, middle- and high-school students in El Dorado County can get an up-close view of the juvenile justice system, without having to commit a crime beforehand.
The Teen Court program, which first came to the county 20 years ago, will return to South Lake Tahoe after a two-year hiatus caused by staffing shortages. According to a El Dorado County Health and Human Services Agency press release, Teen Court offers young offenders an alternative to the traditional justice system while providing a chance for teens to learn about what goes on in a courtroom.
"They get a feel for what's going on in the juvenile justice field," Senior Deputy Probation Officer for El Dorado County Vanessa Wood said. "It's a great opportunity. The local attorneys, everyone gets involved. And it's exactly what these low-level offenders need. It's a wake-up call."
After completing a mandatory training on Sept. 27, youth in grades eight through 12 can serve as court personnel for real cases in which a minor has committed a nonviolent offense and has agreed to be tried by a jury of his or her peers.
Wood said that few of the offenders go on to commit a second crime after going through the program. It's a way to encourage positive behavior, she said.
"There's a low level that go on to be repeat offenders. It's not 100 percent, but if you get a kid who is a first-time, low-level offender, you can steer them from committing more offenses, which is the goal," Wood said.
Shirley White, manager for the county's Alcohol and Drug Programs that serves as the umbrella over Teen Court, agreed that the program has a stellar track record when it comes to helping youth remain first-time offenders.
"The vast majority of youth offenders completing the Teen Court process do not go on to commit further crimes. It is a powerful program that makes a real impact in the lives of these youth," White wrote in an email.
For the middle and high school students who participate, Wood said Teen Court gives them valuable knowledge they can use in their future careers.
Students serve as prosecutors and defense attorneys, court clerks, bailiffs and jury members, Teen Court Coordinator Jorge Orozco said. They will also determine the offenders sentence, which could range from community service work to writing a formal letter of apology.
Superior Court Judges like Presiding Juvenile Court Judge Steven Bailey in El Dorado County will preside over the cases and volunteer attorneys from Tahoe can help students develop their arguments, but other than that, it's a completely student-run show, he said. Orozco expects about 40 students from South Tahoe Middle School and South Tahoe High School to participate.
"I think it's an excellent program. It diverts some of the low-level offenders you need a consequence but don't need to go through the court system. Secondly, it gives students an idea of what it means to be involved in the criminal justice system. It's something a lot of adults never get to do," Bailey said.
The monthly hearings will begin in South Lake Tahoe on Oct. 18 and continue through May.