By Leslie Radford: CNJ Staff writer
Jennifer Aasen and Hope Watkins know exactly what they want to do when they graduate Clovis High School in 2006 — attend college and become lawyers.
It is a career choice that stems from participation in a volunteer youth program in Clovis that puts the justice system in the hands of teenagers called Teen Court.
Both serve as attorneys, with Aasen a public defender and Watkins a prosecutor. The perpetrators are their peers, with cases vary from fighting at school to alcohol consumption.
“It’s fun,” said Watkins, who was inspired to join the program by her aunt, who supervised a mock trial team at Clovis High several years ago. “I saw her help so many troubled teens. I’d like to think I’m doing something to help someone, too.”
Unlike the mock trial team, Teen Court is “very real,” according to Karen Lard, director of the program, which is funded through the county.
“It’s just like any other court system,” said Lard, who helped establish Teen Court in Curry County in 1994. “The cases are given to the students by juvenile probation … for ages ranging from 9 to 18.”
Curry County public defender and Teen Court judge Jim Wilson said the program holds juvenile offenders accountable for their actions.
“Character plays a key role in this program,” he said. “Every aspect of their behavior is being judged by their peers.”
Aasen knows this much from experience.
“I got involved with Teen Court as an offender when I was 13,” she said. “It changed my life and I hope that I can help these students realize their potential, too.”
While Aasen wouldn’t go into detail about what landed her in trouble, she did say it was something she regrets and her priorities have since been put in prospective.
Offenders are usually sentenced to community service and may attend special life skills classes through the Teen Court program to reduce the hours served. Students who serve as jurors or in other court roles are rewarded with special events.
From the split jury panel to the attorneys who take the time to train students to work the cases, Teen Court is ran mostly by volunteers.
Lard said some of the adult volunteers have been through the Teen Court system themselves and play an dynamic role in helping the youth of Curry County focus on their futures.
Watkins and Aasen said they will likely stay involved with the program in the future to offer expertise to a new generation of young justice.