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December 17, 2014

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Lawyer cut her legal teeth as teen in county’s unique Trial By Peers program

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Christopher DeVargas

Trial by Peers participants from left to right: Gabrielle Kanter, junior at A-Tech, Alexandra Martinez, junior at A-Tech, Alexis Brown, senior peer counselor, Natalie Kim, sophomore at Meadows, and Tiffany Solari, junior at Bishop Gorman. May 24, 2012.

Trial By Peers

Alexis Brown, associate attorney for Fennemore Craig and a senior peer counselor for the Trial by Peers program, May 24, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Justice seems to pump through the veins of Alexis Brown, a Las Vegas native who has been “practicing” law since she was 13.

Brown, 29, is a lawyer with the Fennemore Craig legal firm and traces her love of the law to her childhood. Among her youthful experiences, Brown was involved with Clark County’s Trial By Peers, a program established in 1993 that enables middle and high school students to represent and prosecute teens accused of petty crimes, such as shoplifting or truancy.

These days, in addition to her work, Brown volunteers as a senior peer counselor in the program, helping teens defend and prosecute other teens facing first-time, non-violent misdemeanors in the program.

“I decided when I was 8 years old I wanted to become a lawyer,” said Brown, who recently received her license to practice law in Nevada.

Growing up with parents involved in law and law enforcement, Brown’s love of the legal profession was in her blood.

“It was something I would aspire to be,” she said. “I really wanted to help people.”

Part of those aspirations led her to Trial By Peers.

In Clark County, teens charged with a crime have a choice whether to be tried through the juvenile system or Trial By Peers. In the peer program, defendants still stand before a real judge. If they are found guilty by a jury of their teenage peers or plead guilty, they are sentenced to community service hours. The sentence depends on the severity of the crime and the jury’s recommendation to the judge.

Teens acting as peer counselors learn from an attorney mentor and receive the real-life experience of being in a courtroom. Many of the trials take place throughout the year at the Family Courts and Services Center.

Among the lessons, teens acquire an understanding of the legal system and often overcome fears of public speaking.

“I was 13 and scared out of my wits,” Brown said of speaking in front of a courtroom in her younger days.

Now Brown is able to coach students to be confident in presenting cases to the jury.

Alex Dombrowski, 17 and a junior at Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy, has been a peer counselor in the program for the past three years. In a room full of jury members dressed in street clothes, Dombrowski stands out with his spikey blond hair that’s as sharp as his black suit.

“It was my mom that got me involved,” Dombrowski said. “She forced me. (I’m) so glad she did.”

Dombrowski isn’t sure if he’ll become a lawyer like Brown, but he does enjoy winning cases.

“You have to dedicate yourself to the case,” said Dombrowski, who likes representing defendants.

Witnessing his client's and the client’s parents’ reaction after a “not guilty” verdict is reached is one highlight of the program for Dombrowski.

“The mom’s face lights up; the defendant’s face lights up,” he said. “It’s a happy moment in the courtroom.”

The program costs about $33,000 annually, but it frees up more than 600 cases from the regular juvenile court system.

“It saves the taxpayers a ton of money,” said Mary Chapman, an attorney and a member of the Clark County Law Foundation board, which oversees the program.

Chapman said Trial By Peers is unique because it gives defendants pleading “not guilty” an opportunity to be represented and tried by peers, whereas similar programs across the country will not take on those cases.

The program lowers the potential for those teens on trial to commit another crime, she said.

“I hope (teens on trial) can see they don’t have to lead a life of crime,” Brown added.

The Nevada Supreme Court has approved the program, and a licensed attorney assists in each case.

“We have to provide due process,” Chapman said.

The peer juries, Chapman said, tend to be more judgmental of the teens standing trial.

“They just see through the BS; they see through the garbage” when it comes to crimes such as defacing property, truancy and minor drug possession, Chapman said.

Trial By Peers “gets the kids to see the consequences of their actions,” she said. “(It) gets the parents involved.”

The success of the nearly 20-year-old program is heralded almost universally by those involved.

“The transformation is just amazing,” said Chapman, adding that she knows of at least three attorneys in the valley who have gone through the program.

“We’ve had a couple of defendants who have applied for the program,” she said. “It’s fun to see that kind of stuff. You give theses kids a chance.”

To learn more about the program or for teens to sign up, visit the program’s website.

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  1. Welcome to China. Mao would have been very proud.

  2. "In the peer program, defendants still stand before a real judge."

    Just what our republic-hanging-by-a-thread needs, more lawyers.

    This whole scenario epitomizes coram non judice. I dare y'all to look that one up!

    "Mao would have been very proud."

    jazzy13 -- more like Kafka. Mao just put people against walls, mowed them down, then said "any one else have questions?" That's why he's in the Guinness Book of World Records as the planet's #1 mass murderer. Hitler was third.

    "The first thing we do, let's kill all the lawyers." -- Dick the Butcher in Shakespeare's "Henry The Sixth," Part 2 Act 4, scene 2

  3. Community service, as a sentence, has been proven over and over again to be extremely ineffective. This is nothing but another liberal program which I hope is not costing any taxpayer dollars. It may make some adults feel good, but it's genuinely worthless.

  4. As an educator, I am cheering the Trial by Peers on! This provides an alternative and opportunity for young people to actively learn the process, and choose to participate. It is not for everybody, and no one said it was. Certainly, there are cases that would not be tried in such a manner due to the gravity of the case. But in many instances, this provides an avenue for a young person to be actively engaged in what is relevant in their life. That is to be encouraged.

    Now, we get down to the more adult/more responsibility ladened issues, as sentencing, as there is really not much stated in this particular article about this. There was the statement, "The program lowers the potential for those teens on trial to commit another crime, she said," but no actual statistics were cited as reference.

    There is a judge involved, and given the type of court genre this is, and assuming any/all cases are carefully screened specifically for this type of court, of course, the sentences will be lighter, given, "If they are found guilty by a jury of their teenage peers or plead guilty, they are sentenced to community service hours. The sentence depends on the severity of the crime and the jury's recommendation to the judge." You can bet there are no severe crime cases heard in this court. Not the 100% of everyone is "getting off" with community service hours, as some commenters here are suggesting.

    Trial by Peers serves and fills a niche for youth, either for those interested in the law and careers in law, or for those desiring what is perceived as fairer, for being better understood, in their court case. May more hear about this wonderful service!

    Blessing and Peace,
    Star

  5. "Ride Alongs" are quite different than being in a court room. Over the years, I have had the opportunity to "ride along" in a police unit, and when there was a questionable dispatch, I was met and picked up by another unit to be safe or dropped off at a pre-arranged safe place.

    Bradley does bring up some "cons" to serving as a jury member, but isn't that also true of any adult citizen who is called to jury duty? Those who choose to serve in our society, do take some risk in doing so. Anytime you put yourself "out there" you do so with possible risk. Just think how many angry folks are at the counter at a long grocery line, or frustrated at the service counters at our government agencies, let alone performing artists, politicians, protesters, teachers, those at town hall meetings, soldiers in uniform facing dissenters, etc.

    Our liberty and freedom does have a cost. This is an important lesson that all who value living in the "Land of Liberty" must learn and accept responsibility for.

    Heartfelt thanks to those Veterans who have served to protect and preserve the United States of America.
    Blessings and Peace,
    Star