BOTHELL — Bothell Municipal Court Judge Michelle Gehlsen isn’t convinced the few minutes she spends with new drivers facing their first traffic ticket is enough time to hammer home the dangers of speeding or texting behind the wheel. Teenagers may need a little more encouragement to think about their responsibilities, even if the lecture is coming from someone in a black robe.
Gehlsen has helped the city launch a new youth court with the goal of cutting down on the number of repeat traffic offenders and maybe saving lives. Traffic accidents remain the No. 1 killer of young people, Gehlsen said.
The youth court is open to 16- and 17-year-old first-time traffic offenders. To opt into the court, offenders must admit their guilt. Yet they are given the chance to explain the circumstances in a triallike setting. The court is led by high school students, who serve as the judge, attorneys and jury.
The court, supervised by an adult, will be held once a month at the Bothell Municipal Court. The offenders can have the infraction dropped from their record once they complete the program. If they don’t meet the requirements, they’ll be convicted.
Gehlsen said the youth court focuses on restorative justice, meaning sentences will be geared toward getting the teens to think about the effects of poor driving, rather than making the ticket go away with the swipe of a debit card.
“We really want to help them understand their responsibilities when they’re driving,” she said.
Participants may be required to write letters, do community service or take classes, such as defensive driving or a time-management course if they were speeding because they were late.
“It’s not just about punishment, but also about changing behavior,” the judge said. As part of the project, Gehlsen partnered with University of Washington-Bothell Professor Camille Walsh and some of her legal studies students.
Early on the college students researched youth court models and their effect on communities. The college students also are mentoring and training the Bothell High School and Secondary Academy for Success students who have volunteered to staff the peer court.
The partnership has been a great opportunity for college students who are considering careers in law, Walsh said.
“I think it’s a great chance to help train future leaders,” Gehlsen said.
Diana Hefley: 425-3393463; hefley@heraldnet. com.