by Kelly Bennett
Trial in Southwest Valley Youth Court – I was on the bench the other night, presiding over Murrieta’s Youth Court. While waiting for the jury to finish deliberations, I Tweeted about Youth Court and received a lot of great questions. After the recent avalanche of unflattering (and unnecessary) press on Murrieta and the immigration debate, it’s time for some “good news” about our fine City. There are so many great things going on in Murrieta, and the Youth Court program is one of them!
Youth “Attorney” addresses the jury – Launched in 2008, Murrieta’s Youth Court provides a “second chance” for first-time juvenile offenders. To participate in the program, young offenders must admit guilt and go through the rigorous program where they are “tried” by a jury of their peers: Local high school students, some of whom have committed crimes and successfully completed the program themselves. Not every offender gets to participate in Youth Court. Participation is a privilege, because after successful completion, the juvenile’s criminal record is “wiped clean.” Murrieta Police and County Probation work together to select the minors who they believe would benefit from the program.
Murrieta Police Cpl. Swearingen opens the Youth Court Session – After admitting guilt, the young offenders appear before the court with their parents for “trial.” Court is held once a month in the evening, at the Temecula court house on County Center Drive. Local judges and judge-pro-tems from the Riverside County Superior Court volunteer and preside over the trials. Local high school students from debate and mock trial teams serve as “prosecutors” and “defense” attorneys. After opening statements by the “attorneys,” the juvenile offender stands before the court and must answer pointed questions from the teen jury and the judge. The judge has the police records, incident reports and the minor’s school records. After closing arguments, the jury goes into closed deliberations in the jury room, with the assistance of Murrieta Police Corporal Chuck Swearingen (a long-standing youth advocate and School Resource Officer) and guidance counselors from area schools. The jury picks a foreperson and after deliberating, reads its sentencing recommendations to the court while the juvenile offender stands.
Youth offender stands to address the court. – The “sentence” is always a “cafeteria plan” of items designed to really reform the youth and prevent the criminal act from reoccurring. The local non-profit youth and domestic violence prevention agency, S.A.F.E., oversees the youth after trial, ensuring that they complete all aspects of their sentence. The sentence always includes several months of service on the Youth Court jury, 10 to 30 hours of community service and apology letters to the victims of the crime. The sentences often include things like jails tours, anger management classes, victim awareness classes, rehabilitation for early-stage drug users, curfews and participation in the Police Activities League known as the “P.A.L. Program” (where the youth engage in service projects and day trips with Murrieta and Temecula Police – all P.A.L. officers work off-duty, volunteering their time).
The judge may “enhance” the sentence to provide maximum impact. For example, I recently enhanced the sentence of a young woman who had stolen several hundred dollars of merchandise from a department store. The young lady (a high school senior) revealed during trial that she wanted to go to college and ultimately work in radiology at a hospital. I enhanced her sentence and ordered her to meet with the head of radiology from one of our local hospitals, interview them on what they look for when hiring people for their department – and find out how they view a person who has committed the same crime that she committed – then submit a written report to the court on the interview. The idea is for the juvenile to gain insight on the long-term impacts their crime may have on their lives.
Murrieta Police Cpl. Swearingen at sidebar with Judge Pro Tem Bennett – Over the six years of Murrieta’s Youth Court, we expanded it to include the City of Temecula. Now the Temecula Police Department works alongside Murrieta Police to expand this service to the region. Now called the Southwest Valley Youth Court, the program enjoys an astounding 96% success rate, and minors are taken off the path of crime and placed back on the path to success. Now that’s what I’d call, really good news!
If you’d like information on how to volunteer or donate to the Southwest Valley Youth Court, please email Corporal Chuck Swearingen at firstname.lastname@example.org.