Teenagers. Paintball guns. Cars. It’s a recipe for mischief, certainly. Disaster, possibly. Jail time? Maybe. But a stop in Orange County’s Peer Court is sometimes all it takes to get kids in trouble back on the straight and narrow. Being judged by their peers rather than by a “grown-up” court can be a valuable experience for a young person, says Tiffanny Brosnan, an employment litigation attorney with Snell & Wilmer in Irvine and a volunteer and adviser to the program.
“They can see that laws can be applied to them,” she says. “They see how it impacts the families. That’s usually the most difficult part of the process. You can have a mom or dad up there crying, seeing how this has been so upsetting to their family. They can be heartbroken and embarrassed to be there.”
In this court, high school students act as jurors, while adult judges and lawyers volunteer their time to advise and hear cases for first-time nonviolent misdemeanors ranging from curfew violations and theft to drug and alcohol offenses. Sentencing recommendations range from writing a letter of apology and doing community service to restitution or drug rehabilitation.
Offenders, who are referred to Peer Court by the county’s probation department, have six months to complete their sentence. If they are successful, the offense is stricken from their record. If not, they are turned over to the regular juvenile court. Brosnan says 80 percent of those appearing in Peer Court never reoffend. Each year approximately 240 offenders appear before the court with a parent or guardian at a cost of nearly $375 per offender. The alternative cost is $1,500 a day through the regular juvenile court system. “It’s a great savings to taxpayers, especially when you hear about the overcrowding in our prison systems,” says Brosnan. “This is a much cheaper alternative.”
Offenders have only one chance in Peer Court, where they learn that even their peers want them to be held accountable for their actions. “The jurors are really insightful and they pick up on issues that adults don’t remember or have blocked out of their memory about what it’s like to be a teenager,” says Brosnan. “And the questions they ask can be really pointed. They can put parents to the test. They really push the offender and the parents to answer the questions.”
The Orange County Peer Court is one of about 1,000 similar courts nationwide. Program volunteers include church groups, students looking for extra credit and students required to serve as part of their school’s curriculum. For Brosnan, the draw is community service. “I feel that I have to give something back and be a responsible member of the community,” she says. “This is what I can do with my particular skill set.”