Students raise the bar at Teen Court

Eric Heinz
Students in grades eight to 12 participate in the Teen Court Program, a juvenile justice system educational program, Thursday at El Dorado County Courthouse.
Eric Heinz / Tahoe Daily Tribune | Tahoe Daily Tribune

Teen Court is now in session.

Beginning Thursday, students in eighth to 12th grade participated in the El Dorado County Court Teen Court Program, a program that allows students to experience legitimate juvenile court cases.

It is the students’ job to determine the degree of sentencing of their peer, a minor who has already pleaded guilty, according to the Teen Court Program guidelines.

Students are taught the basics of courtroom etiquette, due process of the justice system and the importance of maintaining confidentiality of the cases with which they are involved.

“It’s a lot of fun, and you’re going to practice your persuasion and public speaking skills,” said coordinator Jorge Orozco, who is also a county health education coordinator with El Dorado County’s Mental Health & Human Services Agency.

Depending on the nature of the crime and whether the defendant is a first-time offender, they may be eligible to enter the Teen Court Program.

Attorneys meet with the minor and the offender’s parents or guardian to determine the character of the offender.

Mentoring attorneys, people licensed to practice law in California who help with Teen Court, explained the basics of the court system and what the students will need to do in their respective assigned positions. Students will be prosecuting or defense attorneys, jurors, bailiffs or clerks.

Two of the students who returned this year have already been assigned as junior attorneys.

Michalea Martin, 16, is in her third year of the program and she said she wants to be an attorney when she gets older. Martin said she doesn’t yet know what discipline of law she would like to practice.

“It’s a fun system,” Martin said. “I’m just kind of exploring it all. Any experience you get out of it is good. Tahoe is one of the only places that does a program like this, so I definitely recommend it (to other students).”

Students also said it’s a great way to build confidence in public speaking.

“I expect I’ll be pretty nervous, but we’ll see,” Daniel Hatfield, 14, said. “It will of course help with college.”

Hatfield said he wants to be a veterinarian, but sees the program as a great way to learn about the justice system.

Max Morgan, 14, is in his second year of the Teen Court Program and also will be one of the junior attorneys.

“You get to learn about the system and everything,” Morgan said, adding he wants to be an engineer, not a lawyer. “People respect you for doing it, and it’s just all-around fun — a brain exercise, I guess.”

Although it can be nerve-wracking for students to formally sentence their peers, the opportunity to assist in legal proceedings is an exciting prospect, students said.

“Just getting up there in the first place and just thinking about all the stuff is pretty easy in my opinion, but getting up there and having to think ‘don’t mess up, make sure you say everything right,’ that’s probably the hardest part,” Morgan said.

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