Youth court provides option for county’s young offenders
Cameron Preece and Joseph Longman are both only 15 and taking the bar exam for the first time.
The De Soto High School sophomores are training for Youth Court -- although the bar exams are only replicas of the real test for lawyers, the cases are real. Each year, dozens of youth throughout Johnson County who commit minor offenses choose to have their cases heard by their peers. In De Soto, about 20 or 30 youth have been trained in the ethics, rules and privacy of a real criminal trial. Students serve as jurors, attorneys and judge in Youth Court. Students in the program are gearing up for their first case in December.
"I have students asking me if anyone's done something bad yet," faculty sponsor and special education instructor ViAnn Abel said. "They're anxious to practice what they've learned."
Preece and Longman are training to be prosecuting attorneys. On Tuesday, they completed the final of a three-part bar exam and training session. Many students have to re-take the exam or get further training before being a judge.
"Watching TV shows made it seem interesting," Longman said. "But in real life, they don't have the cool sound effects."
Johnson County Youth Court supervisor Courtney Barden said youth offenders always have the option of having their case go through the traditional court system. In order to qualify for youth court, the offense must be a first-time misdemeanor. She said most cases are battery, fighting at school, minor theft or school truancy.
"It's voluntary at all stages of proceeding," she said. "If they feel this is not the route to go, they ask me and I'll return the case to the DA for formal prosecution," Barden said.
Senior Kasey Willnauer has been involved in the Youth Court program as a lawyer since its inception four years ago. Next year, Willnauer said he hopes to study pre-law at Washburn University in Topeka and later qualify to enter Washburn's law school.
"Ethics is one of the more important parts," he said. "We just have to put all feelings aside."
Sophomore Breanna Sigman served as a juror last year.
"The bar exam is hard," she said. "There are long lists of vocabulary words, and I couldn't remember them all the first time."
Sigman said she's not sure if she really wants to go to law school, but would like to be involved in the legal process.
"I think I could go for a paralegal or court reporting," she said.
De Soto High School learning coach Mike Murphy has supervised the program in the past. He said he's glad to see students benefit from the program -- those who take part in the legal process and the "respondents," or students who have committed a crime. Many of the respondents are fellow students, and many of the crimes have taken place in or around the school where the Youth Court trials take place.
"I think they feel it's fair," Murphy said of the respondents. "They've put it in the hands of their peers who understand that situation. They also see it as a way to pay back society for what they've done, and maybe they understand better what they've done wrong."
Students involved in Youth Court are given strict orders not to discuss the case with their fellow students or with the respondents outside of court.
Barden gave Preece and Longman specialized advice to be prosecuting attorneys before their test on Tuesday.
"You should always have a reason for asking a question," she told the students. "Don't ask unfair questions."