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AREA YOUTHS BEING JUDGED BY THEIR PEERS.

Byline: Amy Raisin Darvish Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - The five defendants were seated in the courtroom when a jury of their peers filed into the jury box Thursday and took their seats in Division 3 of Newhall Superior Court.

None of the five defendants was older than 16, nor were many of the jurors. This is the way Teen Court - which kicked off its 10th season Thursday - operates and despite the tender ages of the participants, the verdicts and sentences are binding.

Parents of the defendants sat behind them and, like their children, were called upon to answer questions in open court.

``How did this even come about?'' one juror asked the defendants. ``Why were you out at midnight and did you plan to do this, or did it just happen?''

The boys, all friends, were arrested this summer and charged with vandalism after shooting up cars and the exterior of homes with a paint-ball gun. Because the damage exceeded $400, it qualified as a felony.

``We didn't really plan it,'' answered defendant No. 3, a tall, lanky 15-year-old. ``We were just messing around and it just kinda became this mob mentality.''

Last names are not used in Teen Court, which was begun in September 1995 by the city of Santa Clarita and the local sheriff's station as a way to deal with juveniles charged with certain low-grade crimes, such as fighting, petty theft or vandalism.

An alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system, which can include a permanent record and incarceration in a juvenile facility, Teen Court is offered to a select few who have not been in trouble with the law before and maintain decent grades at school.

``Not everyone is a candidate for Teen Court,'' said Detective Dan Finn of the Santa Clarita sheriff's station, who helps run the once-a- month court. ``It really offers kids a chance to serve their sentence without having a record.''

Instead of appearing before a judge in Sylmar Juvenile Court, the defendant agrees to be judged by other teens who once sat in the defendant's chair.

With the exception of recommending incarceration, the teenage jurors are free to be creative with their lines of questioning and are permitted to factor in defendants' demeanor in court - are they taking this seriously, or is this just a game of pretend to them? - and their sincerity when answering questions.

Jurors in Thursday's vandalism case were instructed to consider the testimony of every defendant but to ultimately judge each boy individually.

After about 25 minutes in the closed-door deliberations (aided by a member of the District Attorney's Office) the jury handed down verdicts that were similar in quality but varied slightly in quantity.

One boy, defendant No. 3, was given more community service hours than the others - 95 hours to be served within six months - because the jury felt he was smirking during court proceedings and did not grasp the seriousness of the situation.

All five were ordered to refrain from contacting or associating with each other for three months. The sentences must be completed within six months for the charges to disappear.

Another boy, defendant No. 4, was ordered to take driver's education class again because he was the one who drove the car that night.

The boy's father said after the court proceedings that he and his wife were grateful for the chance to avoid a permanent record for their son.

``Initially, he was being charged with a felony. It was very much a shock to hear the severity of the crime,'' said the father of defendant No. 4. ``We feel very fortunate that Santa Clarita has this program. We weren't expecting 90 hours of community service, but we're very relieved.''

Each boy was also required to write an essay on topics including the effects of vandalism on society and the misuse of such weapons as paint-ball guns. The defendants were also ordered to observe a daily curfew of 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. for the six-month period.

Amy Raisin Darvish, (661) 257-5254

amy.raisin(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

photo

Photo:

(color) Judge Jeff Amendari presided over Teen Court in which five teens were found guilty of vandalism by a jury of their own peers.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 3, 2004
Words:709
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