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New Forsyth Peer Court offers alternative sentencing for teens
Chance to mitigate some first offenses

The Buzz: Week 11

By: Joshua Sutton

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CUMMING — If the goal for someone facing charges in court is to be judged by a jury of their peers, what happens when that person is a teenager? Are adults peers to high school students?

Forsyth County Juvenile Court staff members didn’t think so. And that thought culminated in Monday night’s mock trial to showcase the training 14 teens have completed to create the county’s first Peer Court.

The court will be a diversion program that provides an avenue to handle first-offense matters through education while promoting accountability.

“For lower-level, first-time offenses, we’ve decriminalized some charges,” said Chief Juvenile Court Judge Russell Jackson.

In some cases, he said, keeping kids out of detention centers and the justice system can reap more benefits than simply punishing them for wrongdoing.

Students who go through it — the first real session will be on April 15 — must be deemed fit by Juvenile Court, said Jessica Stowe, the new program’s coordinator.

They will be first-time offenders of non-violent crimes. Two examples were played out on Monday: a girl who stole an unaccompanied cell phone and a boy charged for possession of marijuana on school property.

In Monday’s mock trial, both admitted to their charges and appeared remorseful.

Peers advocated for the defendant — they are called respondents here — and for the “community.” Sentences by the student-jury included community service and probation, with expunged charges upon completion. That is instead of being charged with jail time and a permanent mark on their records.

The jury also has the option to sentence the respondent to jury duty, allowing him or her to experience the other side of the system.

Stowe said she hopes she sees respondents become part of the court after receiving positive reinforcement from the role models embodied by their peer jury.

The first group of volunteers represents all five Forsyth County public high schools, two middle schools [eighth grade] and a high school in Gainesville.

Nine adult volunteers — five local lawyers and four Georgia State University law students — gave the group advice on courtroom procedure, including how to interview a witness and how to represent an objective jury.

Forsyth’s Peer Court follows an all-youth model, said Emily Boness, public service assistant for the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of Public Service and Outreach at the University of Georgia. Student volunteers take on every role in a court setting, including judge and jury.

Some models across the state use an adult judge, Boness said. She is the program coordinator for the peer court in Athens — an all-youth model — and provided technical assistance and training for Forsyth’s court.

The Forsyth County Peer Court Program is the sixth of its kind in Georgia. The court in Athens has been running for three years, and there are programs in Fulton and DeKalb counties.

“It benefits the youth involved, both the youth [volunteers] because it provides them with leadership opportunities and to serve their community,” Boness said. “And it benefits the respondents to have their sentences decided in a fair and transparent way by their peers. And it benefits the [Juvenile] Court to free up the court’s resources to deal with more pressing issues.”

Recent changes in the state juvenile code caused the number of caseloads to “increase dramatically,” some types by 37-40 percent, according to Rebecca Rusk, Juvenile Court administrator and chief clerk.

“The state wants the community to get involved in our youth,” Rusk said, “and this puts the burden back on the community.”

Rusk initiated the diversion program by applying for a sub-grant from the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. It is administered through the Georgia Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, the organization that also funds the county’s Drug Court.

The goal is to hold teenagers who are good people accountable for their mistake instead of just administering a punishment.

“It puts positive role models out into the community,” Rusk said. “I’ve been wanting to do this for so long.”