Athens, Ga. – On May 7, the Western Circuit Bar Association presented the 2013 Liberty Bell Award to the Athens Peer Court-an innovation in juvenile justice developed by University of Georgia outreach and local juvenile justice units.
Athens Peer Court provides a way for first time youth offenders to accept responsibility and repair the harm caused by their crime and connects them to the community. In addition, area high school and middle school students gain leadership and career skills as they are trained to serve as advocates, judges, bailiffs, and jurors.
“Each week our youth volunteers represent their community to ensure that their peers are held accountable, have a chance to be heard, and … don’t get in trouble again,” said Emily Boness, director of APC and a faculty member at UGA’s Fanning Institute for Leadership Development. “I am constantly impressed by them. One minute they’re talking about prom and the next they are representing the youth or the community just as diligently as adults.”
As of January, more than 40 students from three Athens-area high schools and one middle school had completed the APC training and had heard more than 80 cases.
“Athens Peer Court fits so well both with the Liberty Bell criteria and with recent changes to juvenile justice in Georgia,” said Robert Huestis, president of the Western Circuit Bar Association. “The new juvenile code focuses on enabling juvenile offenders to get help through community-based, diversionary programs, rather than face jail time.”
Each year the Liberty Bell Award is given by local bar associations to recognize outstanding community service by a citizen or organization that promotes a better understanding of the rule of law, encourages a greater respect for law and the courts, stimulates a sense of civic responsibility and contributes to good government in the community.
“To me, winning [this] award means that peer court is becoming more successful and having a larger impact on the youth of the community,” said Erica Crutchfield, a junior at Cedar Shoals High School and APC volunteer. “Being recognized by judges and lawyers means that we are doing something right.”
APC is a collaborative effort of the University of Georgia’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, Street Law at UGA’s School of Law, the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court and the Department of Juvenile Justice, and is funded by the Governor’s Office for Children and Families, through the Federal Juvenile Accountability Block Grant Program.
The J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development is a Public Service and Outreach unit at the University of Georgia. Dedicated to building a better Georgia, Fanning strengthens communities and organizations through leadership development, training and education. For more information, see http://www.fanning.uga.edu/.