A Jury of Young Peers
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A Jury of Young Peers

February 2012

Judge Roy Chernus

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Recently, I literally ran from my chambers at the Marin County Hall of Justice to my volunteer job: presiding over Marin County Youth Court, an alternative to delinquency proceedings for first-time teenage offenders.

Why, you might ask, would a very busy superior court judge, with a caseload of more than 800 civil cases, regularly volunteer twice a month (for more than six years) to preside over an alternative to court? That's easy to answer if you have walked in my shoes.

As a superior court commissioner, I have heard nearly every delinquency and dependency case in Marin County. And I had the unsettling knowledge that the confidential reports from the Juvenile Probation Department in delinquency cases and the confidential reports from the Children and Family Services Department in dependency cases were practically identical when describing each family's situation. Children accused of crimes almost always had parents who were essentially the same as parents accused of neglecting or abusing their children. It also became very clear to me that alcohol and drug abuse (which was the primary reason I encountered these families) is a multigenerational issue.

Still, why do I volunteer for a court-like program when courts serve the same function? I do wear the same robe, but my volunteer work is completely different in a fundamental and exciting way. In Youth Court, I don't decide the cases. A jury of kids makes the decisions about what happens to other kids. And it's not a jury of honor-roll students looking with disdain over the "bad" kids. It's a group of peers on each jury, many if not most of whom have been in trouble for exactly the same reason.

One evening a 14-year-old girl admitted possessing marijuana on school grounds. Not the end of the world. Still, it's something we can't and shouldn't condone. She was tried by a jury of kids, a majority of whom stated that they also had been caught while possessing marijuana and/or alcohol. I didn't exclude those jurors, I welcomed them. As I told the girl, "You really are getting a jury of your peers."

The trial was not about proving her guilt, it was really a sentencing hearing (a "disposition" in the world of delinquency). However, these jurors don't accept the same B.S. that sometimes gets shoveled high and deep to parents, teachers, probation officers, or judges. Try telling a Youth Court jury that it was the first joint you smoked, or that it wasn't your stuff - you were just holding it for a friend. There will be rolling of eyes and barely suppressed snorts of laughter.

The youth jurors were required to ask questions in this case: "How often do you smoke weed or drink?" "How much?" "When did you first smoke weed or drink alcohol?" "Do your parents smoke or drink?" "What are your grades?" "How is your relationship with your parents?" "What did your parents do when you got in trouble?"

I also presided over a case involving a 16-year-old boy's theft of another student's iPhone at school. He had already been given a short suspension from school, and had been punished at home. However, through pointed questioning, the peer jury learned that this boy had some profound emotional issues and problems at home. The jurors realized that he needed professional counseling, and took this into account when they sentenced him.

I can honestly say that there is nothing more profound than hearing a sentence pronounced from a kid's own peers. Usually, it includes many community service hours and participation in a mandatory "decisions under the influence" program. One of the best parts of this experience for me is that all of the kids on trial are also sentenced to serve on a certain number of juries, so that each kid is required to return and be there for others.

So that's why I run off to volunteer at Youth Court. I have the best seat in the house for an effective program for dealing with kids in trouble for the first time, usually with drugs or alcohol. And there's no place else that I would rather be.

Roy Chernus is a superior court judge in Marin County.

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