Juveniles are being tried and sentenced in a classroom courtroom at Cabrillo High School.
Teen Court, a program that started in the fall of this school year, is a part of Cabrillo’s Academy of Law and Justice. Assistant Principal Matthew Brown explained that Teen Court is an official alternative for minors accused of first-time misdemeanor offenses to be judged by their peers.
Students at Cabrillo serve as the jury and bailiff during Teen Court, which takes place in a large classroom on campus. Meanwhile, professional judges and a district attorney volunteer their time to oversee the proceedings. Those on trial are cross-examined by the jury before a guilty or not guilty verdict is decided. The students then decide what an appropriate punishment for the crime should be. Anyone brought to trial at Teen Court has a chance to have their record wiped clean.
“These are real juvenile cases,” Brown said. “We put 18 kids on the jury and they get a copy of the case and everyone gets sworn in and they ask appropriate questions based on the case. They can question the defendant and the parents (or guardians). The judge may prompt them to ask questions that need to be asked so that enough information is on the record.”
Brown said that since the program got started this school year, Teen Court has taken place once a month after school. The most recent session took place on Law Day, May 1, which the school celebrated with several other law-related events throughout the week.
Modeled after similar programs in Los Angeles, two trials take place during each Teen Court session, and the charges have ranged from a DUI, vandalism, possession of marijuana and other crimes. Brown said he hopes to expand the program in the future and offer more frequent Teen Court sessions.
“This is a teachable moment for everybody,” Brown said, indicating that students interested in practicing law can get some first-hand experience in a courtroom and learn about crimes and consequences. He added that the program is good for first-time offenders to learn a lesson as well, and hopefully not repeat mistakes.
He added that students who attend Cabrillo High School cannot be judged at Teen Court, and students must remove themselves from a jury if they have a personal relationship with a juvenile being tried for a crime.
Seventh District Councilman James Johnson, who helped coordinate the effort to establish Teen Court, is hoping that he can help improve the program by using some of the old furniture from the Long Beach Courthouse to make the classroom at Cabrillo look more official. Also, he said, the school is seeking donations to help grow the program.
“This is the first time we have had something like this in Long Beach,” Johnson said, praising the program.
“Normally, these juveniles would go to court and have a criminal record,” he continued. “This allows those youth to stand in front of their peers and hear what their peers have to say and have that expunged from their record. It’s a second chance for these offenders to get this right. And it gives the students at Cabrillo a chance to be a positive part of the criminal justice system.”
Calling the program a “win-win,” Johnson said he hopes the community supports Teen Court because he said the school should have a real juror’s box and other furnishings. He is working with the Los Angeles Superior Court to see if some items from the Long Beach Courthouse could be recycled and reused by Cabrillo once the new Governor George Deukmejian Courthouse is complete in downtown Long Beach.
LBUSD Board of Education member Felton Williams shared similar sentiments about the value of the Teen Court program for both students at Cabrillo and the juveniles on trial.
“This is a premier program,” Williams said. “The kids have taken to it like ducks to water… It’s another one of the pathways that the schools are able to originate and nurture. It is quite exciting, and Cabrillo being one of the newest high schools has really, really turned things around with the programs like this that they are putting in place. Their graduation and college rates are going up.”
Williams said Teen Court has only just started this year, and already it is a stand-out program, and he expects that the program will continue grow. He said: “We are going to have a lot of folks looking over their shoulders. You’ll be hearing more about it.”
For more information about the program or to donate to the cause, contact Cabrillo Assistant Principal Brown at 951-7712.