The verdict’s in: Garfield County Teen Court delivers innovative form of justice
Post Independent Staff
GLENWOOD SPRINGS – A new program in Garfield County gives the concept of “being judged by your peers” a whole new meaning.
The program, called Garfield County Teen Court, gives youths a chance to learn about the judicial system without necessarily getting into trouble.
According to the program’s Web site – http://www.garcoteencourt.org – the Teen Court sentences teens who have committed petty offenses in a hearing conducted by teens. There are teen prosecutors, teen defense attorneys, and a teen jury that decides the sentence. An adult judge – a local judge or attorney – presides over each hearing.
“The cases come from District Juvenile Court, and from Glenwood Springs Municipal Court, Parachute Municipal Court and Carbondale Municipal Court,” said Garfield County Judge Steve Carter, the local founder of the program.
“They all involve misdemeanors where people are (already) found guilty. The jury can come up with anything they want to.”
Unlike many programs in school, the cases and the punishment are real.
Common offenses for the program are shoplifting, arson, theft, underage drinking, possession of less than an ounce of marijuana or cigarettes, fights without serious injuries, possession of a weapon, and criminal mischief involving vandalism or graffiti.
Juvenile defendants have a choice of whether to be sentenced in Teen Court, but if the juvenile complies with the court’s sentence, the case can be dismissed, clearing their record.
The first-ever teen court in Garfield County was held in room 301 of the Garfield County Courthouse Tuesday.
The case involved a 14-year-old girl who had already pleaded guilty to her role in a fight outside Glenwood Springs High School.
Both teen attorneys, prosecutor Aaron Rowland and defense attorney Jacob Ziemann, are on the award-winning Glenwood Springs High School Mock Trial Team, so their knowledge of court procedure was impressive.
“We had about 1 1/2 weeks to prepare,” Rowland said. “It was definitely a new experience. It was different than mock trial, because you never know what the witness is going to say.”
Ziemann said he had to interview at least six people to prepare his defense.
“I thought it went good. Obviously some kinks need to be worked out,” he said.
Both said they’re likely to participate in the program again.
Rowland called the fight “the building blocks of a violent lifestyle” and said the defendant never apologized to her victim. He also told the jury she was already on probation for a similar offense when the fight happened.
Even though the defendant already had pleaded guilty, Ziemann tried to convince the seven-member jury she was a victim of peer pressure who succumbed to anger after being teased.
After more than a half-hour of arguments from each side and testimony from witnesses, it was time for the jurors to head to the jury room to decide the girl’s fate.
“The question is, how long are they going to be in there?” said Teen Court Judge Ruben Hernandez, a local attorney.
The answer was: close to an hour.
When the jurors returned, they handed Hernandez their decision: 40 hours of community service at the Advocate Safehouse, one future session of Teen Court as either a juror or an attorney, a prohibition against any other offenses, one counseling session with both her parents, eight anger management classes, and a letter of apology to the victim to be written within 14 days.
“I thought it was a really good experience,” said Lindsay Ball, a senior at Glenwood Springs High School who was chosen jury forewoman.
“It’s important for the youth to realize the significance of their actions.”
The jury contained members from seventh grade up to 12th grade.
“There were a few young gentlemen in our group, and I wanted to say how professionally they acted,” said 17-year-old juror Nicole Chartier.
Jonathan Cappelli, a 14-year-old freshman at GSHS, said the experience was both enlightening and fun.
“I think it’s a lot easier for children to put themselves in a position of the kid,” he said, “rather than an adult trying to remember what it was like.”
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