At Youth Court, peers hold young drivers accountable

BOTHELL — The six jurors huddled around a table, debating a fair sentence for a teenage driver who had failed to yield to traffic and pulled out in front of a Bothell police officer.

The boy was stressed out and distracted, the jury agreed. He also already works 22 hours a week outside of school. How much community service would be sufficient to send a message and hold him accountable for his actions?

The prosecutors asked for 20 hours. The defense suggested eight hours.

Jurors settled on the boy’s punishment: 12 hours of community service, a one-page letter about the dangers of inattentive driving, and two sessions volunteering with the court.

They filed out into the packed courtroom, ready to give their verdict.

The boy’s case was one of three heard earlier this month in the Bothell Youth Court, a blossoming program geared at raising awareness among young drivers and holding them accountable for their mistakes.

The court also provides about two dozen high school kids the opportunity to interact with college students and local lawyers.

“We’re not only potentially saving lives but we’re also training our future leaders,” Bothell Municipal Court Judge Michelle Gehlsen said.

The youth court began last year out of a partnership between the city, University of Washington Bothell and local high schools.

Young drivers facing their first traffic offenses are offered the option of having their cases heard in the youth court. They must admit they’ve committed the infractions and agree to the alternative sentences offered by the court, which focuses on restorative justice. Once they complete the requirements, the citation can be dropped off their driving records.

“I think young drivers are going to learn more from their mistakes this way then just paying the ticket,” Bothell High School junior Emma Yamamoto said.

All the court’s participants are high school students. They act as the lawyers, judges, jurors, clerk and bailiff. They attend training sessions with UW Bothell college students and receive advice from local attorneys. They volunteer about 20 hours a month to research the cases, meet with the teen drivers and attend the night court hearings.

Yamamoto, who has a relative in law enforcement, began volunteering to “get experience with the court system.”

“I wanted to learn how people my age are affected by the law,” she said.

So far, she sees that it’s not just the ticketed drivers who are taking away some important lessons.

“I think everyone can learn from them,” she said.

In some cases, firefighters have testified about what they see when they respond to crashes. That testimony hits home for some of the teens, Gehlsen said.

Sydney Kramer, a Bothell High School junior, was both a prosecutor and defense attorney at the court’s most recent session. In the first case, she questioned Bothell Fire Marshal Frank Shasky about the dangers of distracted driving.

“The first thing to remember is if you’re distracted, it’s an impairment,” Shasky said.

Kramer is interested in going to law school. That’s why she joined the court. She serves as the youth president for the court’s community advisory board. She likes working with the attorneys, who coach her how to ask better questions of witnesses.

The 16-year-old said she also enjoys meeting with the respondents and talking to them before the court hearings. She asks about their grades and activities outside of school. She questions them about their driving and the circumstances that led to their tickets.

“As the respondent’s advocate we want them to be seen as people, and that they are truly sorry,” she said.

Kramer, who doesn’t have her driver’s license yet, thinks some respondents understand the value of being able to make up for their mistakes. Others, she said, are just relieved they don’t have to pay the ticket.

“If we can change a least one person’s behavior, whether it’s speeding or texting, that’s what counts,” she said.

Diana Hefley: 425-339-3463; hefley@heraldnet.com.

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