A jury of their peers
January 01, 2012
Law students advise high schoolers in city's first Youth Traffic Court
In this case, the defendant is a high school junior, a good student and a varsity football player who volunteers at a homeless shelter feeding meals to the hungry.
He's also an inexperienced driver who caused an accident when he failed to yield at an intersection. The oncoming driver swerved to miss him and went up on a sidewalk, hitting a stop sign and damaging her car. The driver had a small child in the car.
"I felt absolutely terrible," the boy testified in a classroom at Seattle University School of Law. "I was really scared for everyone in the other car. Luckily no one was hurt."
He will be working off the $2,200 in damage his parents had to cover and had his driving privileges taken away for a while. But he chose to have his formal punishment determined through a jury of his peers rather than a judge through the new Seattle Youth Court, a collaboration between the law school, Seattle Municipal Court and Garfield High School.
The jury in his case determined he should write a letter of apology to the other driver and serve on two Youth Court juries. If he completes that, his ticket will be dismissed. He and his mother say the focus on accountability and reflection on the importance of safety could be more effective for new drivers than a fine.
He is just one of the teen drivers who participated in the program launched this spring. The city's first Youth Traffic Court allows eligible teen drivers to appear before Garfield High School students at the law school, rather than in Municipal Court.
"Youth courts provide an opportunity for teens to take responsibility for their driving mistakes, while keeping their driving record clean," said Margaret Fisher, a Distinguished Practitioner in Residence at Seattle University School of Law and a national expert in youth courts, who is overseeing the law school's involvement.
Qualified defendants appear before the Youth Court, receive a sanction of community service, youth court jury service, preventative education and/or similar consequences. If they comply, the infraction will be dismissed and will not be reported to the Department of Licensing or appear on a defendant's driving record.
Garfield High School students serve as judges, jurors, prosecutors and defense attorneys and court staff. The high school students took part in an intensive training before the first hearing and meet with their law school mentors regularly.
"Youth court provides a meaningful civic opportunity for students, who will have the responsibility of deciding real cases," said Seattle Municipal Court Judge Karen Donohue.
They are trained and supported by volunteer law students. Six law students worked on the program launch, including Forrest Smith '12.
"Youth Court helps the community because it empowers creative sentencing for youths that is not available in more formal proceedings," Smith said.
The project supports the Seattle University Youth Initiative, a long-term commitment by Seattle University faculty, staff and students from all disciplines to join with parents, the Seattle School District, the City of Seattle, foundations, faith communities and more than 30 community organizations to help children of Seattle succeed in school and life. The university was recently recognized with a 2012 Presidential Award for community service for its efforts with the initiative.
The Seattle Police Department, Seattle City Attorney's Office, Seattle Municipal Court, and Seattle University Law School faculty are all committed to working with students through this innovative program. The project was funded in part by a grant from the Seattle City Council.
"I can't help but be inspired by the dedication that these high school students have to the program," Smith said. "I hope many of them will pursue a career in law later in life."