Juveniles judged by their peers
She's 16 years old and home alone. It's 11:45 on Friday night. Her phone buzzes and a text screams, "Hey, come out to this party."
There's plenty of beer, music and pizza for the first hour of the party, but as 1 a.m. approaches, red and blue lights catch her by surprise. Ten minutes later, the police officer pulls out hand cuffs; she considers running but knows it's pointless. The K-9 already found the bong with two grams of marijuana in her back pocket.
Her nightmare is a reality for some children and teens in Lawton, but there is still hope for the girl who rode in the backseat of the police car hope to the extent that her juvenile record may remain clear without any traces of her mistake.
As a first-time offender of a misdemeanor, she, with the permission of her guardian and approval of the district attorney, has the option of forgoing formal charges in juvenile court and choosing an alternative route: Teen Court.
Established in 1991
Established in Comanche County in 1991, Teen Court is a nonprofit organization that offers juveniles between age 10 and 18 the chance for their cases to be heard by a jury composed of their peers, who administer the sentence, according to Marcia Frazier, executive director of Teen Court.
"We do give the opportunity to clear that record before they have a formal charge against them because once they're in the (Oklahoma Juvenile Affairs) system, they're in the system for good," Frazier said. "It's a state statute that their arrest can be deferred down to Teen Court. ... Ultimately, the purpose of Teen Court is to give these kids a second opportunity to change their behavior and get on the right track."
Although Teen Court operates like an adult court room, the hearings are led by students, with the exception of the judge, who is the only active adult in the room, and Frazier, who takes on the role of probation officer. An attorney from Lawton or Fort Sill's Judge Advocate General Office serves as the judge.
"The kids run the whole show, and they do an amazing job," Frazier said.
Kids run the show
Students between age 13 and 18 from area middle and high schools volunteer to be defense and prosecuting attorneys; to prepare, they undergo proper training led by Frazier.
Two such volunteers are 14-year-old Nicolas Tabor, an eighth-grader at Tomlinson Middle School, and 16-year-old Mitchell Sadler, a senior at Eisenhower High School.
New to Teen Court, Tabor began preparing only a few months ago for his volunteer role as an attorney, but he said he practices often, and he plans to pursue a career as an attorney.
"(I want to) see people turn their lives around from continuing in a lot of crime," Tabor said.
Sadler, who has been volunteering as an attorney for two years, recalled the first time he served as an attorney, in which he made "obvious mistakes" about the case and felt "extremely nervous," he said.
"I hadn't been able to attend the attorney training that we organize on occasion, and I wasn't really sure what I was doing," Sadler said. "But as I did it, it just got easier. A lot of people who have the potential to be attorneys come through this program or are in this program, and they let themselves get stopped by the fact that they don't feel like they can do it, even though they can."
Sadler encourages other students to sign up to be volunteers because his firsthand experience has helped him grow over the past two years.
"I most enjoy the public speaking and the argument aspect of it. I like putting forth an idea and defending that idea against other people," he said. "It's helped me become more outgoing and willing to share my thoughts and opinions."