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Pro Bono: Minor juries, major justice

For juvenile offenders, a jury of their peers can be tougher than a judge.

That’s according to attorneys who volunteer at Baltimore’s teen court, which sends juveniles accused of minor crimes before a panel of other teenagers. The city’s program is open to offenders ages 11 to 17 who are willing to admit their crimes. Teen juries can sentence offenders to punishments such as community service, anger management therapy or writing a letter of apology.

Volunteers say the program keeps offenders from committing more crimes and gives a boost of confidence to the kids who serve as jurors and lawyers during the proceedings. Offenders who go through teen court understand that it’s their contemporaries, not just adults, who believe they have crossed the line with their behavior.

“I think it gives them the opportunity to see that they are being held accountable by their own peers and this isn’t the outsider adult world imposing rules on them,” said Baltimore City District Judge Joan Gordon, who volunteers as a teen court judge.

Because they understand the pressures felt by youth, the teen jurors sometimes give harder punishments than adults might, volunteers say.

“It’s really interesting when the jury deliberates because these are kids but … they’ll say, ‘This person really doesn’t seem remorseful at all. I think we should give them a higher punishment,’” said volunteer Priya Sharma, who practices juvenile law at the Law Offices of Darlene A. Wakefield.

Push to go statewide

There are already teen courts in 10 Maryland jurisdictions: Anne Arundel, Caroline, Charles, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, St. Mary’s and Talbot counties and Baltimore City. The Maryland State Bar Association is pushing to expand the program to every county in the state and will hold a conference on the topic next Monday at the Sheppard Pratt Conference Center.

According to the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program, which runs Baltimore’s teen court, only 11 percent of Maryland offenders sent to teen court commit another crime within a year, while 43 percent of those who go through the traditional juvenile justice system return to it in that time period.

Baltimore’s program accepts offenders who have committed four or fewer infractions, usually crimes like fighting or vandalism.

Its teen court is held every other Thursday; proceedings run in four courtrooms simultaneously. There is pizza for the kids beforehand.

“For some of them, I think it’s their only meal that they have,” said Baltimore City District Judge Jamey Hueston.

Offenders who go through teen court are required to come back to serve as jurors. Being with other kids who are interested in staying out of trouble is good for the ex-offenders, said attorney Adam Sean Cohen, of The Cohen Law Firm.

He and other volunteers said they enjoy watching the non-offender participants in the program grow, too.

“It’s amazing to see them come in very shy and insecure,” Cohen said. “Next week that they’re there, you can see their confidence growing.”

Gordon said she remembers a boy with a stutter who served as an attorney in teen court. His mother reported that his speech was improving, which she attributed to the time he spent in front of the bathroom mirror practicing what he would say in teen court.

Sharma and Cohen, who are attorneys in real life but judges in teen court, both said they enjoy the chance to don black robes and take the bench. Being the person responsible for keeping order and making sure the proceedings run smoothly has given Cohen new respect for judges, he said.

“I’d only ever looked up at the bench,” Cohen said. “It was almost like getting to walk into the cockpit of a plane. It’s like behind the curtain at the Wizard of Oz.”