PLEASANTON -- At a recent juvenile court hearing, a young man who had been caught smoking marijuana at his high school shifted uneasily in his seat, knowing that in the next half-hour, he was going to be put on the stand, questioned and sanctioned by a jury whose median age was younger than his.
To his right sat his "lawyers," who were also his most important allies in the room, two equally nervous-looking girls sporting oversized suit jackets and fumbling through case folders.
Once the proceedings begin, the boy was sworn in and questioned thoroughly. He was asked when he started smoking pot, whether he took DARE programs as a kid, whether he's aware of the effects of marijuana on the brain and what he thinks of his past and future involvement with drugs.
Afterward, the judge and lone adult in the proceeding, Chung Bothwell, admonished the teenager for his mistake but reminded the jury that "we are not here to be punitive" before sending them off to deliberate.
Shortly afterward, the jury returned with a list of sanctions: the teen must take drug/alcohol classes, formally apologize to his family, perform 10 hours of community service and serve multiple sessions of jury duty in a future hearing of the very same youth court.
This teenager, who is not being identified because he is a minor, is one of a handful of first-time juvenile offenders whose cases are handled by the Tri-Valley Youth Court, a juvenile diversion program that uses a restorative justice model, rather than being strictly punitive in nature. In each proceeding, the jury, lawyers, and secretary are all teenagers or younger, meaning kids who go through the Tri-Valley Youth Court or other youth courts in California and throughout the country are among the minority of juveniles who are actually judged by a jury of their literal peers.
"It's a very powerful thing to see the youth take charge of helping somebody else their own age, and having them admit what happened and go through the whole process," said Tonya Clenney, the youth court's program director.
This court, which was founded in 2008, only deals with first-time juvenile offenders from the Livermore to the San Ramon/Danville area who commit misdemeanors, such as theft or drug use. Its sole purpose is to decide on appropriate sanctions based on the given crime. Guilt or innocence is never discussed, since teens have to admit their involvement in the crime in order to participate, and the jury is instructed to find sanctions that help the defendant take responsibility for their specific crime.
The recidivism rates among area juveniles aren't publicly available, because police departments keep their records on minors confidential, but Clenney says that the Tri-Valley Youth Court's recidivism rate is around 12 percent. Furthermore, many first-time offenders who go through "the system" end up receiving few to no consequences for their crime.
"Most of these kids, when they're referred to the district attorney, they're not charged," Clenney said. "So, typically they go to out-of-custody probation and they get a letter that basically says, 'shame on you, don't do it again.' "
The lone adult with direct involvement in the court proceedings is the judge, whose seat is usually filled by a former sitting judge or somebody else with a solid legal background but has a somewhat limited role. While the judge oversees logistics and decides whose turn it is to speak, the final decision regarding the defendant's sanctions is entirely in the hands of a jury wholly comprised of kids and teenagers. Was Clenney ever nervous about giving teenagers that much power?
"Initially, sure. But, as I watched it, what I found out is that they're amazing. They know when someone's lying to them," Clenney said. "They're actually kind of harder than we would be as adults; they don't take a lot of crap."