Attorney Mark Osterman gives examples in a lesson about cross examination to peninsula middle-school students who are training to be part of Kenai Peninsula Youth Court. Upon graduation, the students will take an active role in hearing real cases and sentencing their peers.
Photo by Layton Ehmke
For the sort of expert legal council offered to future judges and attorneys in the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, one would expect billing reaching into the neighborhood of small fortunes. But that is not the case the lessons are free and invaluable. Area students interested in learning the ways of justice take the classes, and eventually pass a bar exam in order to become part of the court and its many roles.
Attorney Mark Osterman offers his expert services regarding trial law, a topic and style of which he is most passionate.
"The kids have got to see there can be two counter views, and that still equates to a single determination. Osterman said they realize they have to make or break the case as lawyers. They learn what it means to cross examine and to ask questions and to make sure the information is accurate. Osterman said the objective is for the class to learn the roles of those involved in trial and how those characters operate within the confines of those roles.
"They have to believe in what they're doing or the system will fail," he said.
Essentially, the youth court is where kids between the ages of 12 and 18 who have been accused of breaking the law have the opportunity to be judged by their peers.
Program Director Ginny Espenshade said each youth court group takes 12, two-hour classes and completes a relevant bar exam related to the criminal justice area. The main skills are recognizing criminal court procedure, the relavent constitutional amendments and the role of the three branches of government.
The cases they deal with most are misdemeanors with underage drinking, shoplifting, thefts, criminal mischief, property crimes and the occasional fourth-degree assault. Typical sentencings range from 20 to 60 hours of community service and corrective lessons about criminal behavior.
"The cases we get are screened by the division of juvenile justice, so we can't tell if the court is acting as a deterrent. The steady case load is between 120 to 400 cases per year for Homer and Kenai.
The youth court is a real court where real sentences are imposed. Defendants have the opportunity to resolve legal problems without receiving a criminal record and all proceedings are confidential.
According to the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court Web site, defendants are generally first-time offenders charged with petty crimes who have been referred to Youth Court by Juvenile Intake.
"We live in a system where people are presumed innocent, and that should happen in every aspect because people deserve the best defense they can get. I explain how the purpose is to do justice," Osterman said. "I think the kids are terrific and they should understand that handling juvenile youth cases is important. When a juvenile is judged by their peers instead a bunch of adults, they see that their peers are observing the law and that they should, too."
Espenshade said the court provides something to do with the less serious crimes in a timely response.
"I call this a mini-law school course because they learn from practicing district attorneys and prosecuting attorneys. They get law theory and the application is invaluable if they go into any part of the law, whether it is an attorney, paralegal or anyone advocating for other's rights," she said.
She also said the classes have taught empathy.
This opens their eyes that all types of people make mistakes, and makes them better human beings. Learning through their own actions of donating their own time and learn their own rights is invaluable," Espenshade.
Osterman said young people interested in the court system could be well-ahead of the game later in their lives.
"If any of these kids were to decide to pursue an education in law, they would have a wonderful start and the next generation would be better for it," he said. "Even if only one student gets through to law school that would be great. They would take a world of experience with them."
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