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Peer court model expands reach with UGA support

With help from UGA, three more Georgia communities are establishing peer courts, run by youth volunteers to hear cases for low-risk, first time juvenile offenders.

Griffin-Spalding County, Chatham County and Barrow County are implementing peer court programs in their community with technical assistance from the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, a unit of UGA Public Service and Outreach. The courts provide leadership opportunities for volunteers and a second chance for young offenders.

“Peer court provides a great opportunity for young leaders in our community to interact with other youth and help give them a second chance,” said Katy Castanien, Griffin Region College and Career Academy CEO and Griffin-Spalding Peer Court coordinator.

As jurors, the youth volunteers determine whether the juvenile offenders will complete community service, make written or verbal apologies, or even serve jury duty in a future peer court hearing.

In addition to jurors, youth volunteers serve as the judge, advocates and bailiff for the hearings, receiving leadership training and learning more about the legal process.

After training an initial group of youth volunteers, Griffin-Spalding Peer Court held its first hearing Oct. 25.

“Volunteering at peer court allows me to help other youth,” said Zion Wilson, a 10th-grader at Spalding High School. “It is also a great opportunity for me to learn leadership skills like communication that I can apply in other organizations that I am involved with at school.”

Peer court also helps young people learn about the legal profession, said Maddie Murray, a 12th-grader at Spalding High School.

“I am very interested in becoming a lawyer, so this is a great opportunity to gain experience and understanding for college and future career opportunities,” she said. “I am also excited to serve in the community and help others through volunteering in peer court.”

The Fanning Institute started its first peer court in Athens-Clarke County in 2012, partnering with Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court, the Department of Juvenile Justice and the UGA School of Law. Since then, more than 300 youth have volunteered for Athens Peer Court, receiving 14 hours of leadership training.

“Young people who volunteer to serve at Athens Peer Court learn communication, collaboration and decision-making skills that will serve them well as they assume leadership roles in their schools and communities,” said Jason Estep, Fanning Institute public service faculty. “They also learn about the legal profession and possible future career opportunities.”

Athens Peer Court has held more than 660 hearings in its first 10 years, with most of those hearings taking place within 30 days of the youth being charged – much sooner than in a typical court. In addition, 78 percent of respondents at Athens Peer Court are not repeat offenders.

Starting a peer court could have several benefits in Spalding County, said Stephen D. Ott, presiding juvenile court judge for the Griffin Judicial Circuit.

“Peer court allows youth to hear from other youth regarding their behaviors and why those behaviors do not meet the standards of the community,” he said. “Youth seem to respond to this positive peer pressure better than sanctions from adults. I hope peer court reduces recidivism, involves more youth and adults in addressing the issues facing our community, and allows us to develop future leaders.”

It also provides a learning experience for the volunteers while giving respondents a second chance, said Rebecca Dehbozorgi, Griffin Judicial Circuit assistant district attorney.

“Youth volunteers who are interested in participating in the justice system are afforded a chance to take on a role as an attorney, judge or juror and get valuable learning experience they can use in the future for conflict resolution,” Dehbozorgi said. “On the other side, youth who may have been charged with a low-level, non-violent offense are given the opportunity to accept responsibility for their actions and have their peers decide what those consequences look like without the charged youth ever stepping foot into a real courtroom, where the court’s decision may impact their future.”

In Chatham County, the Fanning Institute has helped the community implement the peer court model for use in select school disciplinary matters, creating the Chatham County Restorative Youth Court, which also held its first hearings this fall.

“Perhaps this program will produce future lawyers and judges, but also a cadre of citizens who have an understanding of the justice system, an additional layer of critical thinking and empathy for those on both sides of justice’s scales,” said Chatham County Commissioner Aaron Whitely.

Meanwhile, it can provide an opportunity for youth to share their stories and get a second chance, said Sherlisa Praylo, Chatham County Restorative Youth Court coordinator.

“I tell our youth to use their voice to share their perspective of where they have been and where they would like to go, and peer court provides both the youth volunteers and respondents a chance to do that,” Praylo said.

Barrow County plans to start its peer court in 2023.

Funding for all three programs was provided through a grant from the Chief Justice’s Commission on Professionalism to the Judge Horace J. Johnson, Jr. Peer Court Initiative, which the Fanning Institute established in 2020 to provide support for the implementation of peer courts in communities across Georgia.

“Both as a judge and as a community leader, Horace Johnson spent his life affecting positive change wherever he went,” said Matt Bishop, director of the Fanning Institute. “He helped shape the lives of countless individuals, led mentoring efforts in his hometown of Newton County and believed in empowering young people to succeed. The peer court initiative builds upon the values and principles by which he lived.”

For more information on peer court, click here.

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