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Kids in court — peer court

October 29, 2001|By KELLY GRANT, Staff Writer

As the jury left the courtroom to deliberate, the young defendant began biting her thumb nails nervously and looked at her mother in the audience.

The defendant, a high school freshman active in sports and earning good grades, has pleaded guilty to shoplifting from a local retailer. Instead of putting herself at the mercy of the traditional justice system, the girl agreed to be sentenced in Peer Court, an innovative program that has spread across the Imperial Valley this year.

Peer Court, modeled after similar programs in the state, started in Imperial County's Northend about four years ago with participation from kids in Niland, Westmorland, Calipatria and Brawley. Now, Peer Court trials also are staged in El Centro and Calexico.

First-time juvenile offenders pleading guilty to crimes such as petty theft, vandalism or traffic violations can choose to be sentenced in Peer Court. The courtroom proceedings, conducted in county courtrooms after usual business hours, are almost entirely student-run. Students act as prosecution and defense attorneys, bailiffs, judges and jury members.

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Many of the students are volunteers, such as Southwest High School senior Sergio Valdovinos. He said he heard about Peer Court in his government class and got involved because he wanted to know how the court system works.

After serving as a judge in a recent case, Valdovinos, 18, said he has a greater understanding for the men and women who act as judges every day.

"I'm glad I was a judge. I felt what it's all about, the responsibilities a judge carries," Valdovinos said.

"In class we just hear the teacher. Here we see how it works," he said.

The students don't just see it; they actually do it.

The sentences handed down by the student juries are real and enforceable. While every sentence must include participation in another session of Peer Court as a jury member or other position, they also can include things such as police ride-alongs, community service or anger-management courses.

Operated by the Imperial County Probation Department, Peer Court is intended to do several things for participants.

The program, in trying to intervene and prevent further criminal acts by offenders, also has educational value for participants, said Superior Court Judge and Peer Court adviser Donal Donnelly.

Peer Court also tries to address any family problems that may have contributed to the juvenile's criminal acts, Donnelly said. Peer Court rules require parents or guardians be present at proceedings. Program attorneys often put parents on the witness stand to testify to their child's behavior.

Jurors, who are allowed to ask questions of witnesses, attorneys and defendants, brought to light through their inquiries an act of negligent parenting in one recent case in which a mother did not know her daughter had left the house at 2 a.m.

This lack of parental awareness has come up several times in Peer Court.

"The jurors are not very accepting of that," said federal Judge Jack Weil, who is starting his fifth year helping students in Peer Court.

In 209 Peer Court cases in the last four years in the Northend, only 2 percent of defendants became repeat offenders, said Fernando Moreno, deputy probation officer.

"This is the best program I've seen for first-time offenders in Imperial County," Moreno said.

If defendants complete their sentences, there will be no prior record of the offense.

Perhaps more importantly, said Donnelly, the experience may motivate students to turn to a more positive and productive path. The volunteer students, local attorneys and judges can serve as role models for defendants, program organizers say.

If heard in the formal court system, the shoplifting charge against the high school girl could have brought a $1,000 fine and six months in jail. Instead, the Peer Court jury sentenced her to write a letter of apology to the retailer, serve two stints of Peer Court jury duty and take a tour of juvenile hall. As in all cases, the defendant was asked to turn to her mother and apologize.

With sincere regret and humility on her face, the girl whispered quiet words to her mother. As the two hugged, it seemed at least one girl is starting to learn the lessons Peer Court aims to teach.

Staff Writer Kelly Grant can be reached at 337-3441.

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