More than just child's play

With the defendant now a half an hour late, the judge, jury and prosecutor decided to leave the courtroom and hit the snack table one more time.

Only the defense attorney stayed behind, watching the clock and hoping her client was just stuck in traffic.

“Her mom called and said they were on their way, but that was two hours ago,” said Tessie Goheen, a calm and serious 16-year-old.

“If she doesn’t come tonight, she’ll lose her chance to go through Youth Court and she’ll have to start over at the prosecutor’s office.”

There, Goheen said, the 14-year-old Poulsbo resident charged with marijuana possession will surely face a harsher sentence, one that could very well include time in the Juvenile Detention Center.

Youth Court is a special avenue in Kitsap County Juvenile Court, an option offered to only a small percentage of Superior Court’s youngest defendants.

To be eligible for the Diversion Program — so named because it diverts a case out of the standard court track — a teenager can only be charged with a first-time, non-violent misdemeanor.

Probation officer Pam Martin, who oversees the county program, said a typical defendant has been arrested for drinking alcohol, shoplifting, or driving without a license, and has not been through Youth Court before.

“We try and have them come through the program only one time,” Martin said, explaining that since the court only meets once a month to hear two cases and takes the summers off, there is a limited amount of defendants the program can accept.

Also, it is considered a privilege to be accepted, since although the teens must admit guilt to enter the process, they also benefit by avoiding any time behind bars.

Once accepted into the program, defendants’ punishment, usually completing community service hours and often writing an essay, is decided upon by a cast of their peers — the judge, prosecution, defense and jury are all represented by teenage volunteers.

Martin said the volunteers are all students like Goheen, ninth to 12th-graders recruited from all of the middle and high schools in the area. But unlike Goheen, who attends Bremerton High School, the majority of the teens come from South Kitsap High School.

This is for several reasons, Martin said, but mostly due to simple proximity. Because all the court facilities are in South Kitsap, students who live nearby have a much easier time getting to the building.

“We don’t have any students from Poulsbo,” she said.

But just as defendants must meet certain criteria, not just anyone is chosen as a volunteer. Once students sign up for the program, Martin said they are asked to fill out an extensive application, both to make sure they are eligible for the program and to introduce them to the tedious process of filling out lengthy job applications thoroughly.

“Sometimes they will leave parts blank, but we send them right back,” she said.

Jeff Franco, a South Kitsap senior who has volunteered in several cases already, said he signed up last fall after his teacher Lysandra Ness told her debate and history classes at SKHS about the program. Thinking it would be just a fun extracurricular activity, Franco said he ultimately got much more out of it.

“I thought we would just be sitting next to attorneys and watching them,” Franco said. “I didn’t know we would actually be doing everything. That made it a lot better.”

Franco said before starting the program, many students think it’s a mock trial and treat it as a joke. But he said they quickly learn that it’s real, and the “defendants’ future lies in our hands.”

Although the teen volunteers do not decide matters of guilt or innocence, they do mete out punishment. During a typical case, Goheen said the prosecution may recommend 20 hours of community service, the defense 10, then the jury usually picks a number in the middle.

Franco said before he started the program he was interested in going into law, and plans to study pre-law at Central Washington University this fall. However, he said the experience has tweaked his career path slightly.

“Before, I thought I wanted to be a defense attorney, but now I would like to be prosecutor,” he said. “I don’t want to make excuses for people. I want them to realize that what they did was wrong.”

SK junior James Jensen said he also hoped the experience would shape the young defendants’ lives, saying he was glad that most of the kids they imposed sentences on were still in junior high, and that hopefully after this they would make different decisions.

“We learn that a lot of these kids, like a girl that stole $200 worth of make-up from a local discount store, commit crimes because of peer pressure,” Jensen said. “So we hope that this process, and we, will (inflict) positive peer pressure on them.”

Jensen said although he was not happy that any of the defendants he saw before him were in trouble, he was glad that they were being punished in youth court, while they were still young.

“This way what they did is not going to mess up their lives forever,” he said. “By making a mistake now, they can see it was wrong and hopefully make a change.”

The volunteers said they saw many benefits in the program for themselves, too, both in tangible ways like learning basic courtroom behavior and proceedings, but also intangible ways, such as showing them that criminals are often kids just like them. Kids who make stupid mistakes.

“You do feel sorry for them sometimes,” said SK junior Carley Noga, but she added that it also helped her realize what can happen when you follow through with a stupid idea.

Ness said she also sees “immeasurable benefits” for teens in the program, both her students and the defendants.

“There are so many life lessons. The volunteers, they learn how many people there are out there that don’t have the kinds of opportunities or privileges that they have had,” she said. “And the defendants, or some of the volunteers that have had problems with the law in the past, they experience huge amounts of growth. It gives them a chance to see the impact crime has on families, businesses and the community as a whole. And it gives them a positive example to strive for.”

Martin said the volunteers are supervised through every step of the process by Superior Court judges and lawyers who mentor each volunteer.

In particular, Deputy Prosecutor Todd Dowell, who in his day-to-day job decides the relevant charges for teens arrested for everything from violent assaults to bomb threats, said he attends every one of the evening sessions and relishes his role as mentor.

“I get pretty jaded in my job, so this is good for me, too,” Dowell said. “It’s good to be reminded that the kids doing bad things are the minority. Most of the kids are doing good things, like these volunteers.”

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