Honolulu Star-Bulletin Local News

By Kathryn Bender, Star-Bulletin
Sandra Kim addresses the teen jury about her client's theft charge
before judge Bode A. Uale, a Family Court judge who volunteers
in Teen Court. “It's good to see these kids involved and
doing this kind of work,” he said.

Teen court
deals out sentences

Isle youngsters get punishment and a lesson from their peers

By Jean Christensen

The high school freshman slouched while the jury forewoman read the sentence: 30 hours of community service, four nights of jury duty and a 250-word essay on the dangers of using drugs.

"Do you accept it?" the judge asked. With a lazy nod, the 14-year-old girl accepted.

"Melissa" had been caught smoking marijuana a month before in the girl's bathroom at school, her first run-in with the law. But instead of telling her story to a Family Court judge in private proceedings, she put her fate in the hands of her peers - fellow teen-agers, some of them past offenders.

They didn't like her attitude. They "maxed her out" - giving her the stiffest sentence allowed.

Melissa is one of more than 120 Oahu youths who have gone before Teen Court, a new brand of juvenile justice that strives to give young lawbreakers a sense of accountability to their community on the hope that it will make them less likely to offend again.

Similar programs around the country are being hailed as a success both for reducing the "real" court case load and lowering the rate of repeat offenses by teens. Local judicial experts say Hawaii won't be an exception.

Teen Court got its start in the Honolulu School District as a federally funded pilot program in May, but it has been in session for four years on the Big Island.

The set-up is like a traditional courtroom with exceptions: Juries don't decide guilt or innocence, only sentences. And aside from a certain minimum number of hours of community service, those terms must include at least one night of service on a Teen Court jury.

Students age 12 to 17 serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, clerks and jurors. Most are volunteers, but the four-member jury also includes youths who are required to be there as part of their sentences.

The only adults are the judge, usually a volunteer attorney or Family Court judge, teachers who act as jury "facilitators" and at least one of the defendant's parents, whose attendance is required.

Only first-time offenders with misdemeanor or truancy, curfew and runaway violations can take part. Defendants must admit their guilt, but the court will keep no record of their violation if they successfully complete their sentences. Students also can reject their sentences, but their cases would be returned to Family Court, where they would likely face stiffer terms. As yet, no student has rejected a Teen Court sentence.

The intent is to give students a multidimensional view of the judicial process and to expose as many as possible to the consequences of breaking the law.

"In court, you've got one kid and their parents," said Family Court Judge Iwalani White, a regular volunteer at Honolulu Teen Court. "I can only impact that one kid and that one family. . . .Here, even if I missed the respondent - it goes over his head - I got the bailiff, I got the attorneys, I got the jury."

Indeed, everyone in the courtroom - a classroom at McKinley Community School for Adults - witnessed White's stern remarks at a recent hearing.

She let young Melissa know she wasn't impressed with the apology she had offered the court ("The amount of marijuana they found on me was a seed and a stem").

"What does that mean?" White said. "Because you had bad weed we should let you off the hook?"

With his father seated behind him, a 15-year-old freshman who admitted stealing a pack of cigarettes from a Times Super Market endured another of White's minutes-long lectures. White asked him if he was concerned about the embarrassment his parents would now feel shopping at that store.

"You don't think they feel shame?" she said.

As tough as her lectures can be, White said the mandatory jury service probably has the greatest effect on the offenders. It's there that they truly become participants in the system, and where many undergo a positive form of "brainwashing," she said.

"The peer pressure is wonderful," added Janet Sumida, who oversees Honolulu Teen Court as an educational specialist with the state Department of Education.

Kaimuki High School teacher Dennis Masui, who has watched several juries deliberate, said it's not unusual for jurors who were previously defendants to advocate the toughest sentences. They see through the excuses, he said.

Many continue to volunteer for jury duty even after they've completed their sentences, Masui said. A few go on to become Teen Court attorneys.

And there are the diehard volunteers who try never to miss a Wednesday night session.

"It gives me something to do," said Ligaya Vasquez, 14, a freshman at McKinley High who heard about the program through a teacher. "I meet new people. I learn about other people and their problems. You're actually helping them out."

Fellow McKinley High freshman Gary Ishida, 14, who volunteered as a defense attorney on a recent night, said he's getting practice that will help him become a real lawyer someday.

Oahu judicial officials say it's too early to tell whether the program has had an effect on the teen crime rate, but on the Big Island the statistics are promising. There, 10.5 percent of Teen Court graduates from 15 months ago committed a second offense, compared with an overall juvenile recidivism rate of around 50 percent. But Big Island Teen Court program manager Dan Straight said the comparison is like "apples and oranges" because Teen Court handles only certain cases.

While the program so far has made only a dent in the Oahu Family Court case load, Family Court Judge Bode A. Uale, another Teen Court volunteer, thinks it will have a greater impact with time by encouraging offenders to stay on the right side of the law.

"It's good to see these kids involved and doing this type of work," he said. "Better than being out on the street."

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