At 3:30 p.m., the gavel rapped and silence fell over the crowd.
Judge Stuart Rice, who works in Torrance’s Los Angeles Superior Court, began.
But Rice wasn’t in Torrance. Instead, he’s presiding over Teen Court at Redondo Union, a three-year-old program at the high school. The court is not a mock trial or student debate. It’s the real deal, where student offenders face a jury of their peers.
The court has students from a consortium of South Bay and Los Angeles schools, and students hear the evidence from real cases and decide the outcome.
“I like that it gives me a voice in our juvenile justice system,” said co-president Samaya Rubio, a junior at Redondo Union. “I don’t know if my peers are like, the adults.”
Last Wednesday, a 13-year-old boy from a Los Angeles school faced his peers: students from RUHS. He was charged with sexual battery. He allegedly grabbed a girl six times over three-month period—mostly on her butt.
“Most of the time young people come on in and admit guilt,” Rice explained to the boy. “We’re not here to punish you. We’re here to assist you.”
For nearly a half hour, high school students asked questions, which the boy answered.
“How did you touch her?” It was a dare from a friend, he said.
“Why didn’t you go to a teacher?” He didn’t think a teacher would believe him.
“Are you still friends with him?” No.
“Would you ever touch a girl without her consent?” No.
The teenagers directed questions to his parents—asking how his grades were, and what kind of changes were made. And after questioning, the 12 students went back to deliberate. With the guidance of a jury verdict form, the teens voted on a variety of items: a curfew, community service, counseling, parenting classes, a letter to the victim, an essay and grade requirements.
After the jury deliberates, they read the verdict. Rice makes the ultimate sentencing.
Sometimes the teenagers are stricter than Rice would be, he said. Sometimes, as in situations involving social media, he finds they’re not as harsh.
For the 13-year-old boy, Rice lowered a 60-hour community service commitment to 40 hours. The high school students also recommended counseling—one week individual, one week with parents, switched back and forth over six months. They also recommended writing a letter to the victim, a one-page essay on consent and sexual assault, maintaining As and Bs in classes, and getting set up with a mentor.
In his deliberations, Rice excused most of the boy’s actions because, at 13, he was still young. But one moment irked the judge: when asked why he shouldn’t touch someone else, the boy said he didn’t want to get into trouble.
“I want you to feel regret about your mistakes,” Rice said to the accused. “If you were 16, I can tell you, you wouldn’t be in Teen Court.”
Later, Rice said he wanted to change the boy’s frame of mind.
“I was purposefully a little stricter, and wanted to make sure I reached him. I wanted him to understand this is not OK on any level for any reason.”