Kaua’i has Hawai’i’s only Teen Court

LIHU’E – Jurors peer at defendants, checking for lack of remorse or signs of smug attitudes.

Members of the three-person jury can sometimes hand down harsh sentences, all including mandatory counseling, community-service time, and jury-duty time.

The term “jury of your peers” has significant relevance at Kaua’i’s Teen Court, the only such program in the state, as jury members were once defendants, called “respondents” under this unique alternative to state Family Court, or District Court or Circuit Court, for youthful, first-time offenders.

Teen Court is an alternative to real court for young offenders who are arrested for various crimes, plead guilty to the offenses, and are first-time offenders.

It is a program of Hale ‘Opio Kaua’i, Inc., which works with troubled young people in various settings including residential youth homes.

Family Court officers and county prosecutors refer suitable cases to Teen Court, where real attorneys talk to the accused youngsters in hopes that the attorneys won’t have to see the same youngsters in real courtrooms later in life, said Robyn McCarthy, Teen Court manager.

The cases toughest on McCarthy are ones involving runaways, assaults, and drug use, she said.

Teen Court is more of a restorative-geared model, compared to real courts with punishment-geared models, she said.

Parents are involved in the proceedings, normally appearing before the court, where proceedings are much less adversarial than in real courtrooms, McCarthy continued.

Before a real judge, Frank D. Rothschild on a recent call to order at the conference room of the Queen Lili’uokalani Children’s Center on Kali Street here, a young bailiff called the cases, young attorneys described the cases for both sides before the young jurors, who must render a unanimous decision just like real juries must reach.

Sentences include mandatory community service, service time on Teen Court juries, and counseling. Some respondents are made to write letters of apology to victims, and others are made to pay restitution in amounts determined by juries but suggested by young, volunteer prosecution and defense attorneys.

The Kauai Food Bank, Boys & Girls Club of Hawaii and similar nonprofit organizations are common community-service locations.

The accused take Teen Court seriously, because they realize they have been judged worthy of a non-judicial second chance.

Along the way, participants learn speaking skills, coping skills, self-esteem, teamwork (juries have to reach unanimous verdicts), and more.

Friendships develop, and sometimes teens continue volunteering at Teen Court long after their court-ordered, community-service period has ended, said Maria Udaundo, 18, a senior at Kapa’a High School and lead teen volunteer.

After hearings, an intake period is for new respondents. Sometimes, the QLCC parking lot is full of cars, with those scheduled to appear in court also having to park along Kali Street.

“It’s exciting,” Udaundo said of her involvement in Teen Court. She sits in on all the cases, and gets to meet a lot of people, she said.

With Teen Court for nearly two years, Udaundo was once a respondent, and now works also to recruit teens to volunteer at Teen Court. “It was fun,” Udaundo said of her mandatory community service.

Adults and teens are always needed as volunteers for Teen Court, McCarthy said. Adults help with jury deliberations, and talk with and counsel the youngsters, she said.

Udaundo, daughter of John and Lourdes Udaundo of Kapa’a, last year went with McCarthy to the National Youth Court Conference in Washington, D.C.

It was Udaundo’s first trip ever to the Mainland, and she found out that the country’s other teen volunteers have the same headaches she has, including getting and retaining suitable volunteers, she said.

While there, Udaundo bonded with other young people from Mexico, New Mexico, Arizona and New York, met around 150 other teen volunteers, and toured the historic sites of D.C., she added.

In her junior year, Udaundo said she wanted to study computer technology at college, though her relatives want her to become a lawyer. Also in her junior year, she was already being contacted by various institutions with scholarship offers, she said.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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