Las Vegas Sun

August 1, 2014

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Trial by Peers

At the age of 14, SaraLee Anderson already has represented more than 75 juveniles in court.

Her bedroom, "covered with law books" as she describes it, looks more like a makeshift law office than a teen hangout.

"Unfortunately, I don't have the statutes I really, really need," Anderson says from inside a courtroom at Clark County Municipal Court House, where her latest trial just ended. "I have to rely on my attorneys for that."

For two years Anderson has been actively involved in the Clark County Bar Association's Trial by Peers program. She hopes to someday be a prosecutor or a criminal defense attorney.

Forty-six local lawyers volunteer their time to train students ages 12 to 17 for the Trial by Peers program to act as counselors representing juvenile first-time offenders facing misdemeanors in court. The offenders, through the program, are able to get the charges against them dismissed or otherwise settled, and the counselors get valuable courtroom experience.

The juvenile offenders volunteer to have their cases heard by a jury of eight other teens. The jury decides its verdict and the punishment -- often community service -- and when the sentence is completed, the offense is taken off the teen's record.

"The student peers are much harder on the defendants than the regular judicial system," Jessie Walsh, deputy public defender and co-chairwoman of the program, said. "You'd think jury pool would be automatically sympathetic. That hasn't been the case. Its more like ... 'Well I had to go through this so should you.' "

Been there

Many of the jurors were defendants themselves who in addition to community service were ordered to perform jury duty. Since last year nearly 600 have served.

Since its inception seven years ago, the program has seen considerable success, Humberto Rodriguez, director of public service for the county bar association, said.

The program has increased tenfold. During the first year 40 cases were tried. Last year 431 cases were tried. More than 1,600 defendants have been tried by their peers.

Rodriguez, 23, and a couple of friends introduced the program to the bar association in 1992 after hearing of a similar program in Alaska. Rodriguez, a UNLV student who plans to go to law school, tried the first youth defendant seven years ago.

Currently 33 youth counselors represent defendants, but before they are allowed to enter the courtroom, they must attend an eight-week training session followed by an exam similar to the state bar. The student exam is so similar that "there's a very low pass rate," Rodriguez said.

The test grills teens on evidence, courtroom demeanor, ethics, pretrial preparations and motions they should be making.

Those who pass can counsel and represent juvenile defendants as if in a real court of law.

Typical case

Last week, Anderson represented two adolescents charged with tampering with and damaging a car by throwing a 12-inch pizza pan at it. The pan put an 8-inch gash in the car and caused $250 in damage.

The teens were each sentenced to 40 hours of community service. One teen was sentenced to serve twice on jury duty, the other three times.

Normally in juvenile court, sentences for such first-time offenders would be a warning or 10 hours of community service, Rodriguez said. This gives them a preview of their future if their behavior continues -- which acts as an effective deterrent, he said.

How effective is clear in the statistics the program has amassed. The recidivism for Trial by Peers is one-fifth of the regular juvenile court system, Walsh said.

William Silva, owner of the damaged car, didn't file for restitution. "I just wanted them to get community service. Otherwise their mom and dad would have had to pay."

The program is positive peer pressure, said Roger Woder Jr., a deputy marshal at the Las Vegas detention center, who arrested the two teens.

"If 12 kids who are your peers say you're guilty, it might have more of an impact than if an adult judge makes the decision." Besides, he said, "This is almost like the real thing."

Woder and his partner testified at the trial.

"We were actually kind of excited when we heard about this. We were one of the first ones in our unit to do this."

About 5 percent of all juvenile cases go to Trial by Peers. The cases include crimes such as petty larceny, simple battery, minor with possession of alcohol, school disturbances and a handful of cases involving marijuana.

The offenders are referred to the program by Clark County Family and Youth Services or Clark County School District Police.

"If they come through this program successfully, it's an automatic dismissal," Walsh said.

Money saver

It also benefits the county.

Diverting cases through the Trial by Peers program saves probation officers, district attorneys and public defenders time and money, said Gloria Golberg, deputy probation officer and Trial by Peers coordinator for Family Court. By diverting 300 teens through the Trial by Peers program, nearly $24,000 is saved.

More importantly, some futures are saved.

"Some kids who have done jury duty have gone on to take the summer program" to become youth counselors, Golberg said.

Such turnarounds are what program representatives wanted. The program enables attorneys to get involved in volunteer work, it educates the youth on the legal process and gives young people the opportunity to decided whether they want to go to law school, Rodriguez said.

Anderson, a home-schooled student who completed the course two years ago, had no prior experience or knowledge of the legal process. Everything she knows she learned in the course, she said. Last year she received the program's award for most cases accepted. She wants to attend UNLV's law school.

"I really want to be a prosecutor," she said, but "having done both sides gives me the insight into what the other side is thinking."

Derek Miller, 15, who was the prosecuting attorney, said he he plans to be a surgeon, but wanted to be involved with the program to help other teenagers out. In the year that he has been in the program, he has represented 18 juveniles.

Teens learn from this program, he said. "They understand what a pain it is to go to court and be condemned by people their age."

Attending the program also gives him experience, he said. And if he changes his mind and decides to go law school instead of medical school, this will give him good background.

Miller said he first heard of the program in the eighth grade, when representatives came to his school. The program has had seventh graders express interest.

Based on their courtroom demeanor, guessing the counselors' ages can be difficult. Such was the case for Walsh last week when she met with a student to assess his case.

"We reviewed the case," she said. "It was really evident he prepped the case. Then we talked about his plans to go onto law school."

At the end of the session she was surprised to find the young counselor was in the eighth grade.

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