SAMOHI — The turnout — four judges, a handful of uniformed officers, a State Assembly member’s representative, and the police chief — would normally have been a little overkill for basic DUI and drug possession cases.
But this isn’t a normal court. The jurors ask the questions. The defendants’ last names are confidential. They can’t be represented by an attorney, just their parents. The bailiff is wearing a backwards baseball cap.
Santa Monica High School held its first official teen court Tuesday with plans to hold one every month.
The jurors are kids — Samohi students who’ve been trained by Erika Aklufi, a Santa Monica Police Department school resource officer. The defendants, who are from other schools, opted to be tried by a jury of their peers rather than go to delinquency court. The incentive to be tried by a group of adolescents: The crime is expunged from their record.
In December there was a computer hacking incident at one of the middle schools. School officials caught the perp and decided it’d be a good opportunity to train the teen court.
They didn’t have a judge (local judges preside over official teen courts) so they tried the student based on the sections of the education code that had been violated.
The students don’t give their peers a pass, Aklufi said.
“It’s not like the adults trying to make nicey-nice,” she said. “They will call them out on stuff. They’re harder on them than we would be. We see a lot of people and it’s like, ‘we all make mistakes.’ They’re like, ‘I don’t get away with stuff. Why should you get away with stuff?’”
They gave the student the equivalent of half a year probation with the assistant principal.
“I can pretty much guarantee you (the student) is going to be walking on a very narrow line for a long time,” she said.
Judge David S. Wesley started Los Angeles County’s teen court program in 1992, said Camilo Cruz, a program representative.
“Now we’ve got 23 of them,” Cruz said. “It’s turning into a system.”
The program helps the jurors as much as the defendants, he said.
“A lot of times it ends up being about the kids in the audience, impacting them, making a change on them and so there are all kinds of benefits,” he said. “I run the court program for all of our outreach programs and this is the most important because it touches on all the key goals.”
The first scheduled Samohi cases were pretty basic but it’s not always like that.
“It’s gotten very intense but the good judges will keep it tame,” he said. “We’ve had issues of prostitution cases, gang stuff, and kids on the stand crying.”
Cruz has never heard of any fights or retaliation stemming from a juror’s treatment of the accused.
Back in the courtroom (Samohi’s art gallery) the trial is delayed. Apparently both of the defendants jumped bail. But fear not. It’s a teachable moment.
“This is something that we have to deal with in an adult courtroom all the time,” Judge Kathy Mader told the audience of students.
In teen court, it’s the first time in 10 years that Cruz can remember both defendants skipping out.
But the show goes on. Mader presides as 13 kids are selected and another judge steps in to play the role of the accused. She’s in trouble for driving drunk late at night.
Juror number one, wearing a jean vest, stares at the accused with folded arms.
“Was it, like, an open bottle of vodka?” he asks.
“Yeah, it was open,” she responds, frowning.
Mader applauds the question, explaining the open container laws, and then quickly moves on. Five other jurors are eagerly raising their hands with questions.
The plan is to hold court once a month for the remainder of the school year.