Monday, June 15, 2015

Restorative Justice, and the Sonoma County Teen Court.

It must have been the fall of 1992.  There was an article in the Santa Rosa Press Democrat, talking about Sonoma County's new diversion program for the juvenile courts. They were looking for teenage volunteers, to serve as attorneys.  The cases would be real, referred by different local police departments. A meeting was set a few weeks out, and there was a phone number for more information.

About 30 high school students showed up. We heard from a panel of court officials and criminal defense attorneys. All of the accused were misdemeanor defendants, and they had to admit guilt to participate in the program in the first place. The goal was to attempt to reintegrate them into the community, while sending a message about unacceptable behavior. Our job would be to explain, to the jury of teenagers, what had happened, after piecing together a police report and hearing from the client.

I was a typical over-scheduled accelerated student in high school, with honors and AP courses, football practices, and play rehearsals, so the time commitment mattered.  But the program held my attention.  The teen court illuminated the fabric of the lives of the families working their way through the system, for the parents would usually come to court, too. So many of the situations I encountered cried out for more effective social services and, above all else, for empowering schools so that the courts wouldn't be called in so often to pick up the pieces.

Sonoma County Main Adult Detention Facility
Photo available at http://tinyurl.com/obt3p8q
The hearings were in a courtroom at Sonoma County's Main Adult Detention Facility (jail). I must have handled at least 50 cases before heading to college. Most ended with the defendant making restitution and doing some community service, including sitting on a later-convened teen court jury. The program successfully reduced recidivism–the data I've seen indicated the rate was substantially lower than normal.  Further, the impact on the lives of the volunteer teenagers is revealing; a number of them (I think, actually, all) went on to complete law school and become attorneys.

The program went on for some time after I graduated from high school. About a decade later it became a victim of budget cuts, back when things were so bad Santa Rosa had to turn off streetlights to save money. But the restorative justice principles that the system embodied have only become more relevant in education and in juvenile justice since.  Teen courts like Sonoma County's promote accountability and community protection, but they also foster the development of competency in the defendants, a point that deserves special attention.

About a year ago I taught a class with one of the Sonoma County Superior Court judges at our Juvenile Hall, for the toughest kids in the system.  The last question of the 90 minute session was the most poignant.  The guy looked like he might have been 16, and he was clearly bright as hell.  He was very specific with us. He wanted to know if a felony conviction as a juvenile would, when he became an adult, prevent him from becoming an attorney.

For that young man understanding and mastering the principles of justice represented something special.  It was power, but also it seemed to signify achievement. The aspirational element that is so often the motivating spark to commence a legal education was clearly there. The emphatic reply he received from us was that it was wide open for him.

And that is the final element I choose to illustrate what the Sonoma County Teen Court was all about. For teen courts are special because they require the defendants to then participate in the system as jurors. It causes them to witness the functioning of the court as a person responsible for the wielding of power, rather than just as a defendant, feeling confused and helpless when subject to it.

Dyan Foster
Photo available at http://tinyurl.com/negx47u
This is at the core of restorative justice-that the system should help reweave the fabric of the community torn by the transgression, rather than focus only on punitive retaliation. In a smaller way, when those defendants served, they took a certain amount of ownership of the system. Like the young man in juvenile hall, they developed an understanding of the importance of justice, something particularly clear to those who have once been judged themselves.

I hear that, possibly, the program may be restored by the County. On the merits, I'm in favor. But quite apart from whether that decision is made one way or the other, as readers of this blog are doubtless aware, as a lawyer, education sits at the center of my practice. The kernel of that comes from the Sonoma County Teen Court, and a 17-year old version of me, who as a teen attorney was trying to understand how people's lives had caused them to bump into the police, and how more effective education could have helped so many avoid such problems in the first place. And for that, I owe a continuing debt of thanks to  Dyan Foster and Routes for Youth, who made the program possible.

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