A new order in the court

In Marion County, teens are choosing to appear in court-the 8th Judicial District Youth Court-in radically different capacities.

Juveniles who are first-time offenders and have pled guilty or no-contest to misdemeanor charges have the option of going before a jury of their peers in youth court.

A second group of teens, members of youth court, are volunteering to serve as defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, clerks or jury members trying their peers who have chosen to appear before them at the county courthouse.

“Youth court is a collaborative effort through the 8th Judicial District, Communities in Schools and all five school districts,” said Linda Ogden, director of CIS in Marion County.

“It provides the opportunity for first-time offenders to go before their peers in a court of law.

“It’s a program that has recently, within the last few years, really been promoted by the juvenile justice department at the federal and state levels as a program that research shows helps to decrease re-offenders and problems of juvenile delinquency.”

The 8th Judicial District Court is composed of Morris, Marion, Dickinson and Geary counties under the jurisdiction of Judge Michael Powers.

Youth court has already been established in Geary and Dickinson counties, but Marion County originally opted not to participate in the program.

In the late 1990s, a Marion County Youth Team was established as one arm of a county planning team in the newly reformed juvenile justice program.

The team was established to look at ways to reduce juvenile crime in Kansas.

“It had come to the point where Kansas really needed to do something about juvenile crime-it was on the drastic increase,” Ogden said.

“When the state of Kansas went through juvenile justice reform, youth court was something that was promoted by the juvenile justice authority, but our Marion County Youth Team chose not to promote youth court, and we honored their decision,” Ogden said.

After a period of inactivity, youth team was revived in Marion County in early 2001, and the members expressed new interest in youth court.

“And so we started looking at it, and we took a group of them up to observe the youth court in Geary County,” Ogden said.

“We started talking to the staff of the 8th district and researching and doing some training and brainstorming about it, and it came around to our youth team did want to implement youth court.”

By the fall of 2001, the youth court had the backing of Powers, and the program was under way.

“And so they have agreed for their diversion officer, Nicole Lind, who serves Dickinson and Marion counties, that she would-as part of her duties-also coordinate youth court in Marion County,” Ogden said.

A Marion County Youth Court Oversight Board was formed, which includes youth representatives Marissa Phillips and Amanda Steiner; youth-team representatives Danielle Steele and Kiera Funk; school representatives Neal Weltha, Katy Pankratz, Phoebe Janzen, Evan Yoder, Tonja Wienck and Janna Duerksen; law enforcement members Lee Becker, David Mayfield, Dan Kinning, Howard Kahler and Jeff Pohlman; and community members Loretta Klose and Ogden.

At this time, there is room on the board for three more student representatives.

Another essential ingredient for this project is the youth volunteers. These are the students from eighth- to 12th-grades who serve as jury members, attorneys or clerks.

The youth-team members were the first volunteers, and the school counselors are helping spread the word about the need for more volunteers.

Volunteers are a diverse group, Ogden said. They include students who aspire to be lawyers, some of the members of the youth team and other teens who are community-service oriented.

They may also include former offenders ordered by their youth-court peers to serve as jurors on future court dates.

To obtain a standard application, students go to their school counselor’s office.

“Right now, we only have maybe two dozen (volunteers),” Ogden said.

“We need a pool of at least 60-so we need three times what we have now. What we intended was for the process to be somewhat competitive, but it hasn’t been because there aren’t enough. We’re taking everyone we get.”

If a volunteer indicates an interest in being an attorney for a youth-court trial, their name is turned into Lind for extra training by a member of the Marion County Bar Association.

In preparation for their first trial, students observed youth court in Geary County, watched a video of Dickinson County Youth Court and participated in a training program on Jan. 15-a program led by diversion officers Lind and Chris Flambert.

“We went through what our procedures are for youth court,” Lind said.

“We used a jury model, and we did a brief mock trial to give our kids a little taste of what we’re going to be doing.”

“They were very attentive, and they seem like they’re ready to go.”

One more training session was held Feb. 20 where volunteers participated in a mock trial at the county courthouse.

“In Marion County, we are estimating we’re only going to have to have youth court approximately every other month-six to eight times a year,” Ogden said.

“But each of those times, we will hear two or three cases. It will be on a week-night evening for two to two-and-a-half hours at the district court room at the Marion County Courthouse.”

Teen participants must take an oath of confidentiality that they will not share names or information of any proceedings with anyone outside the court room.

Marion attorney Keith Collett will serve as judge at the trials.

First-time offenders, opting to appear before youth court instead of juvenile court, range in age from 14 to 18 years, have committed a misdemeanor and have pled guilty or no contest. Youth court serves as a sentencing-only venue and does not decide guilt or innocence.

Typical misdemeanors are possession of tobacco or alcohol, shoplifting or underage driving.

After both youth attorneys have presented their case, all jury deliberations must be made in the course of the evening of the trial, at which time, the jury must decide the offender’s consequences.

“What all youth courts have found nationally-and this is in Kansas, too-is that the peers are harder on these kids than regular courts,” Ogden said.

“A lot of times it depends on the attitude of the offender-if they’re remorseful. And it also depends on the attorneys-how well they portray their client.”

The jury delivers the offender’s consequences from a list of options such as the following:

?An expected grade-point average to be maintained;

Community-service hours;

Curfew restrictions;

No contact with a victim or those peers considered a bad influence;

Involvement with the Big Brothers and Big Sisters program;

Supervised jail visitation;

Anger-management counseling.

“Anything that costs money, like therapy or individual counseling, they actually don’t order that,” Ogden said. “They just recommend it because that’s a money issue.

“All of their recommendations and consequences carry the full weight of the court. It carries the same weight as if they went before Judge Powers.”

If the offender complies with the jury’s decision, the offense will not be on their record, Ogden said.

“But if they don’t follow through, they don’t get another chance. If they’ve been through youth court once, they can’t go again. They will have to go back in front of Judge Powers, and they are no longer on diversion.”

Ogden said in many cases, research has proven that youth court is more effective than other programs in keeping teens from being repeat offenders.

One example of the effectiveness of the program was a case the youth court members observed in Geary County.

“There was a girl who went through youth court, and she was a tough cookie,” Ogden said.

“She was rude to all the adults, she was rude to the jury, she did not care, and she had the biggest chip on her shoulder.

“Our kids were spellbound by this.”

The jury gave her the maximum of every consequence, Ogden said.

“Well, sometime after that, I talked to that court coordinator, and she said, ‘You would not believe it-that girl has turned her life around.'”

As weeks went on, she complied with every consequence imposed by the jury, her grades improved, and she’s “doing fine,” Ogden said.

“And she has continued long term. It will be a year in April since we went to that case.”

Lind extolled the program for its success rate in Dickinson and Geary counties.

“The kids have really enjoyed it, the community’s really gotten behind it and so far the community in Marion County has gone above and beyond our expectations as far as support,” she said.

Evan Yoder, Hillsboro Middle School principal, said youth court will also be a positive experience of the mechanics of the judicial system.

“It will be a chance for them to not only be a part of the process but to help others see why getting into those circumstances, that put (the offenders) in the youth court to begin with, are not wise decisions,” he said.

“And to do this in front of your peers, that adds more incentive not only to hopefully go the right direction but to help other kids. It just has more weight than just a bunch of adults saying, ‘You did wrong-here’s your punishment.'”

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