Seattle's first youth traffic court, in which teens act as judge, jury and prosecutors, will convene late this month.
Seattle Municipal Court Judge Karen Donohue knows there’s nothing scarier for parents than handing over a set of car keys to a teenage driver.
She also knows that when adults talk — be it a parent, a teacher, or even a judge — what teens tend to hear is a lot of “white noise.” And when young people make a mistake behind the wheel, it’s often their parents who end up paying tickets and dealing with increased car-insurance rates.
Changing that dynamic is behind the launch of the city’s first youth traffic court, which will begin hearing cases later this month involving Seattle drivers younger than 18. The court will be staffed by 22 Garfield High School students. The Garfield students will get community service credit and have been trained by law students from Seattle University to act as judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, court clerks and jurors. Garfield was chosen because of its proximity to Seattle University.
But instead of handing out fines, the court will tailor sanctions based on the philosophy of restorative justice, according to Margaret Fisher, co-director of the Seattle youth traffic court along with Donohue and Seattle Municipal Court Magistrate Lisa Leone. A teen may be ordered to write an essay for the school paper, or perhaps do yard work for someone whose vehicle was damaged.
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Teens who go before the youth court will also be required to serve on two future juries.
If they successfully complete their sentences, the teen defendants will see their tickets dismissed and keep their driving records clean — which will mean no insurance-rate increases for Mom and Dad.
The average fine for a moving violation is $124, while driving without proof of insurance — a common youth violation — carries a $550 fine. A standard speeding ticket costs $154, and speeding in a school zone, $189.
“In my experience, I’ve seen kids for running stop signs and running traffic lights. But I think the No. 1 [offense] is speeding and speeding through school zones,” said Donohue.
“Having had teen drivers in my family and seeing kids who come through court, I think this is a great opportunity” for teens to truly understand the impact their bad driving can have on the community, she said.
Garfield High freshman Clare Fuget, who turns 16 in September, acknowledged that she and her peers rarely think of consequences until after the fact.
“We’re kind of heat-of-the-moment, that-looks-like-fun” people, she said. While young people may be impulsive and reckless at times, she said it’s important their voices are heard and perspectives taken into account.
“A lot of times adults make our decisions or parents make our decisions, and we’re not OK with that. We need to speak for ourselves,” she said. “… We can relate to each other more.”
On Monday, Fuget will play the role of prosecutor in a scripted hearing before city officials, legal professionals and police representatives. While the program’s kickoff will be a dry run based on a fictional scenario, Fuget and her fellow youth-court participants will begin hearing real cases March 26. After that, the court will convene once a month and hear up to five cases per session.
“Basically, we’re trying to nip poor driving habits and behavior in the bud,” said Forrest Smith, one of six Seattle University law students who are mentoring the youth-court participants.
To qualify, drivers must be under 18 and have been ticketed in Seattle. They must admit to committing the traffic infractions for which they were stopped and agree to have their cases heard by the youth court.
Teens involved in injury accidents or under investigation for more serious crimes such as vehicular homicide are not eligible, nor are young drivers who have previously gone before the youth court.
Fisher wrote the American Bar Association’s curriculum for youth courts in 2000 and has authored reports on youth courts for the U.S. Department of Justice. A distinguished practitioner in residence at Seattle University’s law school, Fisher is convinced youth courts “are the best way for young people to learn about fairness and justice.”
“It’s a very maturing process,” Fisher said of teens who have their cases adjudicated by a group of peers.
There are more than 1,000 youth courts (including five or six in Washington) across the country, up from 78 in 1994, according to the National Association of Youth Courts. Some youth courts handle criminal diversions, while others focus on teen truancy, said Fisher.
“Kids are so inventive and creative” in handing down sentences, Fisher said.
Ordering a teen to write an apology letter, perform community service, or even go on a ride-along with police can have a bigger impact on a young person’s driving habits “than watching all the gory movies in the world,” she said, referring to the kinds of films typically shown in driver’s ed classes.
Sara Jean Green: 206-515-5654 or firstname.lastname@example.org