Preparing for a Teen Court session are from left, Cpl. Sheldon Simpson, “Judge” Toni Batha and “defense attorneys” Rachel Pierce, Maura Taylor and Clohe Henson. Photo by Carol A. Clark
By Carol A. Clark
“The honorable” Toni Batha, her judicial black robe billowing about her, presided over a recent Los Alamos Teen Court hearing.
This is the second year that the Los Alamos High School junior has volunteered her time at the local court.
“It’s really a great learning experience,” Batha said of helping her peers.
LAHS Senior Vanessa Duran also is a second-year volunteer.
“After this year, I’m going into law … I want to be an attorney and this program has really helped me grow a lot,” said Duran who assumed the role of prosecuting attorney during the recent proceeding. “I’m definitely a better speaker and I’ve learned to flow my arguments better.”
Duran commended Teen Court Coordinator Jennifer Bartram with creating an atmosphere “that feels like a real court.”
Bartram took over leadership of the court in 2011 after nearly a decade of teaching local youth programs.
“My predecessors Barb Marcille and Molly Nidday did a really good job of modeling our Teen Court after area courtrooms,” Bartram said.
Teen Court is a nationally recognized early intervention and restorative justice program for juveniles, ages 12-18.
It is a diversionary court that keeps first time teen offenders with traffic infractions and misdemeanor offenses out of the traditional court system.
The teen accepts responsibility for their offense, appears before a teen judge in special training for at least a year, and their peers, and is sentenced.
The teen faces consequences that help them to learn from their mistakes and make amends for their actions.
The sanctions are determined by a Teen Court jury, and usually include community service and jury duty at future Teen Court hearings.
Other possible sanctions can include being required to write an essay, letters of apology, attend educational programs, gender-specific programs and substance abuse prevention workshops.
Misdemeanor cases heard in Teen Court are diverted from the juvenile probation officer in Santa Fe, for minor law infractions, most commonly shoplifting, possession of drugs and or paraphernalia and battery.
Traffic offenses draw mandatory participation in defensive driving school. Teens who commit misdemeanor crimes are automatically referred to a diversion program at the Los Alamos Family Council where they also receive behavioral assessment, Bartram said.
“To be eligible for Teen Court, participants have to either live within Los Alamos County or attend a school within Los Alamos County,” Municipal Court Administrator Lisa Zuhn said. “Sanctions are based within a range of perimeters. As an example, a level one offense – following too close – would require the jury to order 10-30 hours of community service and one to two jury duties, along with a defensive driving class. The student offender also may be required to write a letter of apology to any victims.”
There are more than 14 teen courts in New Mexico. The Los Alamos Teen Court is a member of the New Mexico Teen Court Association.
“We meet quarterly, which is important because it gives us the opportunity to network, share information and ask questions to find out how other courts are handling specific issues,” Bartram said. “These meetings also help us to better train our student attorneys – a recent example was learning how they can handle objections and it’s just amazing to listen to them in the courtroom. We also bring in attorneys for training opportunities for the students.”
Los Alamos County began offering teen court four years ago.
Several national studies, including one released in October, show that teenagers sentenced through teen courts have lower recidivism rates than counterparts whose cases are heard in traditional juvenile courts.
According to a study by The Urban Institute, affiliated with the U.S. Justice Department, teens whose cases are heard in teen courts have a 6 percent recidivism rate, compared to an 18 percent rate for those cases heard through a traditional juvenile court.
The theory is simple: If peer pressure gets kids into trouble, it should be able to keep kids out of trouble, or effectively set them straight when they stray, according to the study, according to the experts.
Teen offenders benefit because they are given a unique opportunity to be exposed to positive peer influence.
In Teen Court, juveniles learn how other teens feel about the offense that was committed, and they face consequences that are directly related to the infraction.
Parental consent and participation are required for the teen to attend Teen Court.
When the defendant, and, or their parent choose not to go through Teen Court, the case returns to the originating source whether Municipal Court, Magistrate Court or the Juvenile Probation Officer.
The outcome is overwhelmingly positive for those who do go through the program, said those involved.
“We find that parents are very positive about the fact that their child is taking responsibility and that their peers are setting the sanctions,” Bartram said.
The community benefits from this early intervention because it can improve teen attitudes toward authority, increase communication between parents and teens, and prevent teens from re-offending or from graduating to more serious crimes, she said, adding that when a student offender successfully completes all sanctions within the required time frame, (90 days), the original charges are dismissed.
Los Alamos Middle School and Los Alamos High School students are eligible to volunteer. They receive training in Teen Court procedure, and are given guidelines for sentencing.
“It’s really a great program,” Batha said.
Teen Court is operated under the umbrella of the Los Alamos Municipal Court, which provides a portion of its court fees to the program and another portion comes from Los Alamos County, Zuhn said. Teen Court is held in the Municipal Courtroom in the Justice Center at 2500 Trinity Dr.
LAHS student volunteer Katie Haynes “shadows” student Judge Toni Batha and receives instruction from Teen Court Coordinator Jennifer Bartram prior to the start of a recent Teen Court Hearing at Municipal Court in the Justice Center. Photo by Carol A. Clark
Top 10 Reasons to serve on Teen Court:
- Help other teens in Los Alamos to learn from their mistakes.
- Meet local judges and attorneys.
- Learn about how the legal system works.
- Have a positive impact on your community.
- Ensure that your peers get fair sentences.
- Get a head start on a career in law or law enforcement.
- Understand more about your fellow students.
- Perform a valuable community service (and have something notable to include on your college application.)
- Gain self-confidence and practice public speaking by becoming a Teen Court attorney.
- And the number one reason – Teen Court needs your help.