A Jury of peers at North Tahoe High School
The 13-person jury deliberated Wednesday for no more than half an hour before handing down a punishment for the defendant: A tour of the Placer County Jail in Auburn, 20 hours of community service at the Boys & Girls Club and a letter explaining what could have been done to stop the incident from occurring in the first place.This jury of teenagers gave what they felt was the appropriate sentence for fighting during school hours. But it is the act of going through a mock trial in front of peers that will hopefully have a lasting impression on the defendant, which is why first time offenders at North Tahoe High School are given that option.This is not to make them feel terrible, it is to give them a chance, said Melinda Maehler, Placer County community services officer for North Tahoe middle and high schools. Maehler started Peer Court in 2002 after seeing the program at another school in western Placer County. She said she feel in love with the program and has been running it ever since.Peer Court is run like an actual jury trial, except all the players involved are students. High school students in Youth In Action are chosen as lawyers for both the prosecution and defendant, as the jury, and as bailiffs and court clerks. The only adult that participates in the trial is the judge, who presides over the case and helps move the proceedings along.It is a good deterrent, Placer County Deputy District Attorney Chris Cattran of Peer Court. It gives them a chance to see the justice system in action in a mock situation.Cattran has played a role in nearly every Peer Court trial, acting as judge and helping both sides in their case.I wouldnt do it if I didnt think it would do some good, Cattran said.The students who go in front of their peers have committed a variety of crimes on campus from thefts and fights to being under the influence of alcohol and having drugs at school, Maehler said. But the students must not have been in trouble before and admit they are guilty to have the option of participating in Peer Court. This option is more appealing than going through a probation hearing for some and the students have six months to complete their punishment. Once completed, all paperwork is destroyed and they have a clean slate, Maehler said.Its a great program and Placer County makes it better by allowing me to be in the school, Maehler said, adding that she checks in with the students every day. Maehler said the program currently has a failure rate of 2 percent those students who did not complete the punishment in the set time. She admits the program is not perfect, but believes it has made a difference. The program is not only a learning experience for the student in trouble, but for all others involved as well. North Tahoe High School sophomore Anja Wittels was a prosecutor in last weeks case that was heard in the Tahoe court house, and prepared over a week with her other two colleagues for the trial, interviewing witnesses and gathering evidence. It was intense, Wittels said. You have to be on your toes the whole time and you put in a lot of time.Many of the students said they did not know how the American justice system worked until they were involved with Peer Court.I didnt even know the difference between prosecution and defense before this, said sophomore Devon Vandewiele, who was also on the prosecution team. It was a lot of work. I learned so much just doing this.
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