As an alternative to the criminal justice system, local agencies explore creating an East County Four Cities Peer Court
It's only one pair of sunglasses in a store full of merchandise.
If a teenager steals them, the shop will stay in business. The young shoplifter - perhaps acting on impulse or playing a prank - may never commit another crime.
To some teens, the incident and its repercussions may seem abstract, inconsequential. But a group of Reynolds High School legal studies students don't hesitate in getting to the heart of the matter.
After quickly determining the thief is accountable to the store owner, the students efficiently engage in thoughtful round robin-style deliberation before suggesting an appropriate punishment: a combination of financial restitution and community service.
Some of these students will apply their fledgling critical-legal skills regularly in an alternative juvenile justice program developing in East County. The Four Cities Peer Court project is an 'early intervention and prevention' program in which youths apply sentences to their peers for minor, first-time delinquent offenses and problem behavior.
Cathy Sherick, special projects director of the Police Activities League, is working with East County high school students to gauge interest in, and groom participants for, an ongoing youth court. Leading interactive crime and punishment-based workshops in Reynolds teacher John McDermott's legal studies class, Sherick is not surprised by the students' engagement.
'Most high school students have a really strong sense of justice,' Sherick said. 'They know what's fair and unfair - that when someone does something bad, he or she should be held accountable.'
Facilitated by the Greater Gresham Area Prevention Partnership (GGAPP), the project centers on the Reynolds, Centennial and Gresham-Barlow school districts. Another partner, the Multnomah County Justice Program, will serve as liaison between law enforcement and Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village.
The peer court, which Sherick would like to see up and running this fall, provides numerous benefits and opportunities for students and the community, she said. Volunteers ages 12-18 can take on the roles of attorneys, clerks, bailiffs and jurors. The youth court typically deals with non-violent misdemeanor crimes. To participate, youths must have parental consent and admit to the charge.
'You have to say, 'Yes, I did this, and I'm willing to go through the peer court,' ' she said.
For a peer-on-peer project to work, students have to be fully invested in the concept, she adds. Classroom workshops help provide them a sense of ownership in the idea.
'Because it's a youth program, we're really required to get them engaged and make this valid and important to them,' Sherick said. 'They're the stakeholders.'
McDermott's legal studies elective course is a first step for students drawn to careers in legal and law enforcement fields. Now in his second year at Reynolds, McDermott discussed the project with Sherick and his students and agreed to devote classroom time to peer court exercises. While the Sherick-directed sessions vary from McDermott's usual legal theme-oriented teaching, the workshops enhance his lesson plans.
'This is a different flavor for them,' he said. 'This is grassroots, if you will.'
An early April classroom exercise focused on the 'appropriateness of accountability,' something McDermott calls a 'huge philosophical issue.'
'We've spent a lot of time discussing what is going to benefit these individuals' who admit to committing crimes, he said.
With visiting Portland State University interns present as mentors, McDermott's students divided into small groups. Each cluster analyzed a mock scenario involving a juvenile crime: drug possession, theft, a runaway teen.
Students referred to accountability guidelines listing offense categories and punishments, including essay writing, community service options and working with groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Mothers Against Drunk Driving.
Some didn't care for essay writing as a theft deterrent.
'We didn't think an essay would work,' said one student. 'They'd just write it to get it over with. Community service would be more effective.'
'If they did write an essay, it wouldn't be sincere,' added another student.
McDermott chimed in. What if parents were directly involved in punishment?
'Parents would mind missing work for a day,' a student said of parents accompanying kids to school.
One Reynolds student recalled when he received a $257 speeding ticket. After attending defensive driving classes with his mother, the fine was reduced to $20.
'It totally made me think differently,' he said of the novel punishment. 'It definitely had a positive influence on me.'
James Vigil, a senior from Fairview, said he took McDermott's class to lay a foundation for a law enforcement career. He's not sure if he'll get involved with the peer court once it's established, but says he enjoys the sessions with Sherick and PSU interns.
'They're getting ideas from us,' he said, 'the teenagers' perspective.'
Good citizens at work
Condrew Allen, a PSU criminal justice major, said the interaction with the Reynolds students was enlightening.
'It was fun. I was real impressed,' he said. '(Students) were way above the level I thought they would be. There were plenty of comments and feedback.'
Another PSU senior, Jamie Tidwell, called the classroom exercises a 'dry run' for the real peer court in which future PSU students will be involved. They're testing what approaches are effective and which to leave behind. She said the peer justice concept is, for many teens, a positive alternative to the criminal justice system.
'The peer court is the first opportunity to correct behaviors before kids get labeled a delinquent or a criminal,' she said. 'It's a chance for them to change their ways before things get really serious and they get involved with the criminal justice system.'
While it may be tempting to assume students interested in the peer court fit the stereotype of a 'tattle tale' or 'narc,' McDermott sees a different motivation.
'When they take on these cases, they don't make it too personal,' he said. 'The kids take it as a practical step, part of the inner workings of a field they may be interested in. They think of themselves as good citizens. There's no pretentiousness in these kids at all.'
McDermott sees peer courts as a welcome pathway to connect students with the surrounding community.
'High schools can be somewhat insular,' he said. 'This is really good to take ideas from the classroom and put them to use. We need to do more of that.' '
Peer Court Project
What: The Four Cities Peer Court Project, a community partnership for restorative justice that involves, supports, educates and holds youth accountable in their communities. Youths sentence their peers for first-time minor delinquent and status offenses and other problem behaviors.
Goals: To keep youths in school, support drug/alcohol-free youths, deter high-risk behavior and educate about the legal system.
Who: Youths who have committed first-time misdemeanors or violations, in or out of school, have parental permission and admit guilt to a crime. Attorneys, clerks, bailiffs and jurors are volunteers ages 12-18.
How: Greater Gresham Area Partnership (GGAPP) staff is working with Centennial, Barlow and Reynolds school districts to train and recruit students to participate in the peer courts. The Police Activities League, National Association of Youth Courts, Multnomah County Justice Program and Multnomah County District Attorney's office are among organizations partnering with Gresham, Troutdale, Fairview and Wood Village.
When: The court is slated to open this fall.
Information: Visit the GGAPP Web site, www.ggapp.org .