Tigard Peer Court marks fifth anniversary
Tigard Peer Court Judge Richard Carlson starts by telling those gathered in the Tigard Town Hall chambers that this is serious business, that someone is before him because he or she has violated a law in the state of Oregon.
He then instructs everyone to shut off their cells phones before asking the jury — 10 of the young defendant's peers — if they know the defendant.
One student acknowledges he's seen him around school.
"Anything you know of him that would affect you from being fair and impartial?" Judge Carlson asks.
No, the youth replies.
Judge Carlson then makes all those assembled swear an oath to keep the proceedings confidential.
(In allowing this reporter to observe the juvenile court case he asked that no specifics, including the nature of the youth's crime, be used due to those confidentiality rules).
Soon the jurors are asking pointed questions about the youth's behavior.
Judge Carlson asks a question or two of his own.
A short time later, the jury adjourns to a small back room inside of Tigard Town Hall for deliberations.
When they return, the verdict is read: The youth must write an essay, perform community service, attend a lecture and serve as a member of the peer court.
Judge Carlson adds one more requirement, an essay on what the youth must do to prevent repeating the same behavior in the future.
"You do what I ask you to do and what your peers ask you to do and this is expunged," he said, referring to the fact that six months after completing a sentence a youthful offender can apply to have his or her record effectively erased.
Like all the youths going through Tigard's Peer Court, they cannot return a second time.
The next time, they are referred directly to county juvenile officials.
Tigard's Peer Court marked its fifth anniversary last month, with judges having heard more than 230 cases throughout that time.
"We get a lot of shoplifting cases," said Lauren Gysel, a youth service program specialist for the Tigard Police Department who oversees Tigard Peer Court. "We've had quite a few marijuana cases, kids bringing marijuana into schools."
Other offenses include pulling fire alarms at school, drinking alcohol and harassment with peers serving one to four days on the jury.
In addition to the judge, a local school resource officer acts as bailiff and parents often accompany their children up to the stand.
Only first-time offenders between the ages of 12 and 17, who live in Washington County and have committed a violation or misdemeanor in Tigard, are eligible to participate in Tigard Peer Court, Gysel said.
Those who agree to attend Tigard Peer Court, which meets two Mondays each month, also must take responsibility for their actions.
"They have to admit their guilt," said Gysel, who formerly worked for the Oregon Department of Human Services Child Welfare division.
Gysel said she thinks the majority who end up in Tigard's Peer Court know they have done something wrong, something that's not always easy.
"I think it's really hard to come out and talk about (what they've done) in front of their peers," Gysel said.
Currently, there are five Tigard Peer Court judges — all attorneys or judges — who oversee the proceedings.
"They preside over the case, making sure the protocol is being followed," said Gysel. "I would say the entire process is about 45 minutes."
Surprisingly, only 4 percent of the cases result in recidivism, based on tracking of the student defendants over a one-year period.
"I really like working with the kids and a lot of them are really good kids who made a bad decision," Gysel said.
Locally, Beaverton is the only other city that hosts a similar peer court although both Tualatin and Sherwood have looked at beginning a similar program, Gysel said.
Some of the offenders come back as peer jurors.
One peer juror, who once was a defendant, said he was a fan of Tigard Peer Court.
"I like the environment, how you get to be judged by your peers," he said.
While nervous during his trial, he said half-way through he became more comfortable.
Gysel observed that many of the young defendants have told her that sitting on the peer jury and listening to what the offenders have done makes them "think about how their actions impact others."
Following proceedings on a recent Monday, Judge Carlson talked about his role in the peer court. He said he wants to ensure that the sentence imposed is meaningful and impactful.
"Sometimes you absolutely know these kids … you know they will never do it again," he said. "That's not necessarily true with everyone."
The judge in each case can add to students' sentences as well.
"They need to know they made a mistake and people make mistakes and they have the ability to control the future," said Judge Carlson, whose daytime job is that of an attorney. "I do tell some, this is a good deal."
Tigard Peer Court is one of the programs that is expected to be cut — along with other non-patrol police services — if an upcoming May 15 local option levy doesn't pass.
That's something that irks Clifford Rone, a member of the Tigard Budget Committee.
During a recent hearing regarding the proposed city budget, Rone told the committee how impressed he was with the lack of repeat offenders who go through Tigard Peer Court.
"The payback there is not having future arrests," Rone said. "Why would we cut something that has such a huge payback long-term?"