Judge and teen jury

Published 8:32 pm Monday, December 8, 2008

Eric Roussell played the part of a 17-year-old middle school underachiever and sat on a witness stand defending his decision to disobey his parents.

Although the scene was part of a mock trial, the scenario’s plot may not stray far from actual cases in the near future.

Students from public and private schools in the city and county got their introduction to Selma/Dallas Teen Court in District Judge Bob Armstrong’s courtroom Monday night.

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Jurors, litigators, clerks and bailiffs will come from the group of students that filled the courtroom. They will help decide the punishment of first-time offenders that are referred to the juvenile court system.

Before CHAT Academy student Chelsey Smith filled out an application to participate in the program, her mother thought she wanted to be a beautician.

“She hopes to gain some perspective for her main goal of being an attorney,” Carolyn Smith said about her daughter. “I was surprised she took the initiative to fill out the questionnaire.”

Teen Court is a voluntary alternative to the criminal justice system for 13 to 18 year olds who are charged with misdemeanors. Their peers defend, prosecute and decide their punishments through the jury process.

After they receive and serve a sentence, their juvenile records are wiped clean.

Program director Lorraine Capers is the truant officer for Selma City Schools and a former juvenile probation officer. She stressed that the cases are real, and the court has to respect the decision of the jury.

“This allows kids to see the court system first hand,” Capers said. “It also deters kids who have never been here before.”

After student volunteers are selected, court is held twice monthly. Capers said the court hears between eight and 10 cases per session.

Sentences may include but aren’t limited to community service, curfew, counseling or letters of apology. The jury cannot sentence students to a detention facility or jail.

Student jurors tend to pass down tougher sentences than adults.

“It’s a psychological thing,” Armstrong said. “Kids don’t want to be judged by their peers.”