A 15-year-old girl up for shoplifting charges is asked by a Lansing Eastern High School student juror, why she felt compelled to swipe a bracelet. The blond teen, accompanied by her mother, doesn’t hesitate. “I just wanted the bracelet; I don’t know,” she says. “Looking back, it was really stupid.”
The 10-year-old Lansing Teen Court program offers youth ages 11-16 a chance at redemption, but they have to work for it. To be considered, juveniles have to admit guilt and agree to partake in all the numerous rehabilitative steps of the program.
Teen Court has a proven track record. A review of a four-year cycle of cases found less than 10 percent of teens who went through the program re-offended. On this day, teen defendants in the Thomas M. Cooley Law
Center's fifth floor moot courtroom are ordered to write letters of apology to victims, pen reflective essays, make restitution, attend school regularly and, if needed, undergo drug testing.
“I think there is something powerful in saying, as your peers, we are holding you personally responsible,” says Robert Easterly, 32, who serves as youth family advocate and instructs the program’s compulsory Street Law workshops.
Easterly grew up in Toledo, Los Angeles and Seattle before moving to the Lansing area with his wife, Dr. Talitha Parish Easterly, who is a psychologist at Michigan State University
. He relates to kids who find themselves in a pinch. Though he never ran afoul of authorities, he concedes, “There are certainly some poor decisions I made as a youth. I understand kids are going to make these kinds of mistakes sometimes, regardless of what your background is,” says Easterly.
The Lansing resident worked with students while at Washington State University where he earned a bachelor’s degree in Communications. Though working on a master’s in higher education administration, Easterly plans to attend Cooley Law in the fall. “I feel a lot of the kids we see here really don't have a good picture of what they want to do in their future,” Easterly says.
In one case being deliberated by Teen Court, a 15-year-old boy was caught with marijuana on school grounds. Upon being searched he was found to be carrying two knives.Delving Deeper
Easterly shepherds the teens into a separate room where they get 15 minutes to deliberate. Once the door is closed, he reminds panel members they should have delved deeper into the teen’s marijuana use, asking him how often he uses and - more importantly - where he was getting money to buy the drug since he didn't have a job.
“When you guys are on that jury, you’ve got to dig,” Easterly tells them. Jurors agree that the teen's transgressions merit serious repercussions. Among the recommendations are that he write a code of ethics, pen a letter of apology, undergo drug testing and attend mandatory Street Law workshops. He also has to pay $40 in Teen Court fees.
The defendant revealed an interest in culinary arts, prompting one juror to suggest the teen partake in volunteer work where cooking is involved. “I think you are onto something there,” Easterly says. Jurors are students from Eastern, which is one of eight high schools involved in the Teen Court program.
Student jurors are trained in the roles of a juror, bailiff and clerk. They also learn the hallmarks of restorative justice – accountability, personal responsibility, rebuilding relationships and public safety – and apply those tenets when crafting dispositions.
Honorary Teen Court Judge Dean Winnie reminds student jurors they have signed an oath not to reveal any details of the case. “The students really gain a sense of responsibility,” says Joe Lubick, Lansing Eastern economics and criminal justice teacher who recruits student jurors. “They enjoy helping others. I have observed students carry that sense of responsibility with them back to the school. They also gain an increased sense of self-worth.”
The jurors take their charge seriously as the girl who purloined the bracelet learns. Jurors pepper her with questions. She’s asked if she was pressured by a friend - “It was my decision,” she says. What was the reaction by friends at her small Christian school? “Everyone found out,” she adds.
Teen Court Process
Though proceedings move swiftly, the process delves into the perpetrator’s motivations and overall mindset. Did they feel remorse? Shame? Teen Court also uncovers the attitudes of parents involved and - on this day - even the victim’s themselves.
A teen boy who sustained a concussion after being body-slammed by his football teammate in an act of horseplay gone-too-far is asked why he didn’t immediately report the incident to his coach or his parents. “I didn’t want to be a baby … a tattletale,” says the victim, who was taken to the hospital. The victim's mother cried recalling how she had to take her boy to the hospital. “He begged us not to do anything,” the mother says.
The teen who committed the assault apologizes to the victim and his mother. The boy's grandmother and guardian also express remorse. The pair of one-time teammates shake hands, and afterward, the victim's mother and perpetrator's grandmother also hug.
“It takes courage to talk about these things,” says Mike Botke, Lansing Teen Court director; to the family members in court. “Hopefully we were able to move forward.”
In all, Botke rules the day’s proceedings a success. Botke, a long-time youth development worker, has headed the Lansing Teen Court since its inception in 2001. The DeWitt resident ran Johnson Childcare and Development Center in Albion before working for Boys and Girls Clubs in Greater Lansing for nearly 20 years. Botke and Easterly are not attorneys, but are passionate youth advocates.
Botke sees an alarming trend of more kids getting indefinitely expelled from school. Zero tolerance policies, which remove the ability of school officials to weigh expulsions on a case-by-case basis, is one reason for the spike. “Don’t get me wrong, if kids are disrupting other kids, then they might have to be dealt with in that regard,” Botke says. “We’re just seeing a trend to dismiss kids. What’s the alternative? That’s what we’re interested in trying to help to identify.”
Easterly adds, “It’s not about punishment; Teen court is about accountability and responsibility. For us it's about saying, 'Hey, I made a mistake. I recognize what harm has been caused and I want to do something to repair the harm that has been caused.'”
Larry O’Connor is a mid-Michigan freelance writer who has written for Capital Gains Media for two years.
Dave Trumpie is the managing photographer for Capital Gains. He is a freelance photographer and owner of Trumpie Photography.
Robert Easterly in Cooley Law School's Teen Court courtroom
Jury members from Dansville High School
Mike Botke and LCC Criminal Justice intern Peter Rockstad (lft) discuss details of a case
The clerk reads the case details
The jury of high school students deliberate
Tom Fruechtenicht, Chief Attorney Referee-Family Division, Ingham County presides over a case
All Photographs © Dave Trumpie