Peer Court, an innovation in juvenile justice in Athens, is nearing its first anniversary, and its founder is planning on taking its concept to other communities around the state. The program has even drawn the attention of Georgia first lady Sandra Deal, who recently observed the court in action.
Athens Peer Court is a collaborative effort of UGA's J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, Street Law at the University of Georgia's School of Law, Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court and the Department of Juvenile Justice.
The Fanning Institute-in collaboration with UGA law students-trains youth volunteers to serve as judges, bailiffs, advocates and jurors for the court. Since the program began in March 2012, 24 students from three area high schools have completed this youth leadership development program.
The court hears the cases of first-time offenders who accept the charges against them and agree to whatever sentence is decided by the jury. In the last year, 52 first-time offenders have chosen to have their cases decided by Athens Peer Court.
The court was the idea of Emily Boness, a public service assistant in the Fanning Institute. Boness participated in a similar court as a youth in Alaska, which led her to law school at UGA. In 2011, she approached Robin Shearer, judge for the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court, about the idea of creating a court and the judge was enthusiastic.
Three cases were heard the evening of Jan. 8 when Deal was in attendance-two shoplifting and one curfew violation. In addition to apologizing to those they had harmed and completing community service, all offenders were required to serve on the jury for the next Peer Court evening.
Once questions were answered, the jurors, advocates and offender filed into the packed courtroom. As the bailiff asked all to rise, Shambrelle Barnes, a 17-year-old Cedar Shoals High School student, entered and took her place at the judge's bench.
"I'm most proud of the kids learning a new way of thinking and the vocabulary to explain their reasoning,'" Boness said. "They could answer any question that Mrs. Deal and her staff asked."
Deal stayed through all three hearings and congratulated the students on a job well done at the end.
Peer court or teen court programs are common around the country, but this is the first such program in Athens, only the third or fourth in Georgia and the only one listed by the National Association of Youth Courts. The Governor's Office of Children and Families-Deal chairs its advisory board-has provided financial support to establish the Peer Court.
"My favorite Peer Court moment was when a former offender came to serve as a juror," Boness said. "At first she said, 'I can't believe I'm here.' But she ended up wanting to be the jury foreperson and I think she appreciated having input into the process."
"I think it's good to give people a second chance," said Shimobi Ojijuru, a 14-year-old Clarke Central High School student who served as bailiff that evening. "It gives offenders a way to enter society in a positive way."
Boness said she hopes to make mediation services available through Athens Peer Court and take the peer court idea to other communities around the state.
Boness also said that it hasn't been the case that offenders could get off too easily. She said the youth volunteers take their responsibility seriously, respecting the people and the process. Most people recognize the experience as a leadership development opportunity for the volunteers and as a way for first offenders to repair the harm caused by their crime, she said.