Athens, Ga. – Youth offenders in Athens-Clarke County will soon have the option to be “tried by a jury of their peers” in the newly created Athens Peer Court. Beginning March 6, first-time offenders will able to choose to have their case decided by trained youth volunteers. While peer court or teen court programs are common around the country, this is the first such program in Athens and only the third or fourth in Georgia.
“The Athens Peer Court will take the less serious cases outside the normal court process. That means all cases will be decided faster, which makes youth less likely to reoffend,” said Robin Shearer, judge for the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court.
Athens Peer Court’s first group of volunteers consists of 13 local high school students who recently completed a 14-hour training program conducted by the Fanning Institute at the University of Georgia in partnership with the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court. Street Law, a student organization at UGA’s Georgia’s School of Law, also helped with training. In addition, this program has the support of the Department of Juvenile Justice in Athens.
“Peer courts are more informal, and youth offenders usually leave court with a greater feeling of fairness,” said Emily Boness, Athens Peer Court coordinator and public service faculty member at the Fanning Institute. “I participated in Teen Court in high school. I know they work.”
Just as in a traditional court, a youth’s case will be presented and at the end of a hearing, Athens Peer Court jurors will decide on a fair and appropriate sentence, usually based on repairing the harm they’ve done and often involving community service.
The training program prepared these high school students to serve as judge, bailiff, advocates and jury. The volunteers also learned how to interview a client, conduct a direct examination, and write and deliver opening and closing statements. Their training culminated in a mock hearing demonstration for families.
Shoplifting, school fighting (without weapons), trespassing, vandalism and minor drug possession will make up the majority of cases heard by Athens Peer Court every other Tuesday evening.
Creating the Athens Peer Court grew out of the “Whatever It Takes” initiative that aims to have every child in Athens on track to graduate post-secondary education by 2020.
For more information, see www.fanning.uga.edu.
The Fanning Institute is a public service and outreach unit at the University of Georgia. Dedicated to building a better Georgia, Fanning partners with communities and non-profit organizations to strengthen capacity, enhance leadership and foster economic prosperity.