TEEN COURT: Young offenders given a jury of their peers
On the first Tuesday of each month, the non-profit One Step Further holds teen court in High Point. In August, court fell on the seventh, in the middle of a heat wave. While the defendants and their families withered outside the courthouse, waiting for the clock to strike 6 p.m., Dawn Hill, her daughter and her daughter’s friend hacked off a piece of butcher paper for volunteer sign-in and a janitor mopped the lobby, a wet washrag draped over his head. Teen court is the brainchild of Greensboro mayoral candidate Yvonne Johnson, the executive director of One Step Further. Johnson did not attend teen court that night, but her nonprofit supplied two of the volunteers: Hill, the director of the program who always attends, and Joy Hayes from the community service and restitution program. The state, county and United Way all provide funding for teen court. Its mission is to divert misdemeanor cases from juvenile court; first-time offenders between the ages of 9 and 15 are eligible to be tried under its auspices. The program is free for defendants, and its proceedings – like all juvenile court cases – are confidential. “I can call the second case and you can sit on the jury,” Hill said to her daughter Robin Covell. Covell and her friend, Sarah Fryar, are both rising sophomores at Northeast High School. Dressed in sensible shoes, slacks and blouses, the pair resembled miniature lawyers attached at the hip. “Why can’t I sit on the jury for both cases?” Covell asked. Hill, the director of Teen Court, said she has struggled to generate interest for the program among High Point teens. In Greensboro, she uses teen prosecutors and defense attorneys, and has a stable of trained volunteers. But on Aug. 7, the court operated with a shoestring staff. In fact, the entire courtroom – minus the judge who was in her chambers – fit into a single elevator. Hill, Hayes, one of the jurors, his father, the defendant, his mother, an observer, her father and a reporter piled in. Covell and Fryar tried to sneak past the crowded elevator, but were corralled by Hill. “We’re going to exceed the weight limit,” Covell said. “I hate elevators,” Hill said. “You know I was born in an elevator?” “I was born in a hospital,” Covell said. The night’s sole defendant remained quiet. Inside the courtroom, Judge Christon Halkiotis, an assistant district attorney by day, adjusted her robe. Hill, in the role of court clerk, opened the session and directed the four jurors, Covell and Fryar included, into the jury box. “You are accused of committing simple affray,” Halkiotis said. “That means you got into a fight. To participate in Teen Court, you’re required to admit to committing this offense. Do you still want to admit that?” The teen defendant was quiet. “Are you going to admit your guilt to getting in a fight?” she asked again. “Yes ma’am,” he said, barely audible. Halkiotis gently interrogated the young man. The fight erupted during a basketball game, he said, when another student at his school, unhappy about not being in on the game, hit the defendant on the lip. The defendant shrugged it off and dribbled back to the other end of the court, where he was pushed. He pushed back. Then the antagonist enlisted an accomplice, who pinned the defendant’s arms behind his back while he delivered a pummeling. A coach broke up the fight soon afterwards and sent both boys to the principal’s office. The defendant was suspended for two days, and his mother grounded him for a month. The defendant’s attacker was also on the docket, but failed to appear. “You can step down from the witness stand,” Halkiotis said. “If we had lawyers, this is the time we would have them make closing statements. That would be anything they want the jury to take into consideration. Is there anything you want to tell the jury?” “No,” he said. The jurors retreated to a deliberation room. Since the defendant had already admitted his guilt, that verdict was foregone. Instead, the four jurors considered how to best “constructively sentence” the offender. Covell, the jury foreperson, announced the sentence. “We hereby sentence you to mandatory life skills classes, seven hours of community service, to serve on a volunteer teen jury two times and write an apology letter to your mom,” she said. Jury service, seen by many adults as a kind of punishment for the good deed of registering to vote, is actually acknowledged as such in teen court. Covell has been serving on volunteer juries for three years, but never by compulsion. Fryar, her friend of two years, has served on five of them. Both said they enjoy the experience. In the deliberation room, the jurors must agree on a punishment that matches the severity of the offense. In this case, it was a level two. The entire proceeding, start to finish, barely spanned 20 minutes. “In the grand scheme of things, this isn’t the most serious thing that comes through court,” Halkiotis said. “And I can see you have a good head on your shoulders.” When defendants fail to appear in teen court, Hill calls the family to find out why. If they have a good excuse, she reschedules their trial. If not, their case is bounced back to the referral source and usually lands in juvenile court. There, the student may be subject to more serious punishment, and may have to hire a lawyer. In the most serious case Covell and Fryar adjudicated, one involving a student who had made threatening calls to her teacher, the jury sentenced her to 21 hours of community service and required her to write a four-page apology in addition to classes and a volunteer stint with teen court. “We gave her the most you can have,” Covell said. The two girls, pictures of maturity during the trial, retreated to the gallery afterwards where they whispered a conversation and waited for Covell’s mother. All her practice passing judgment on her peers has not stirred in Covell a desire to pursue a career in law. In her experience, courtrooms are places for youngsters, a population with which she wants nothing more to do. “I don’t want to have to deal with children,” she said. “I’ve already got four nieces.”
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