Recently, I was part of the Peer Justice Panel at Pima County Teen Court. I worked with teen jurors, two of whom had been arrested for substance abuse. In the following piece, I describe two cases that I witnessed as part of the Peer Justice Panel, and, from my observations, how substance abuse prevention efforts are incredibly effective when carried out in a peer-to-peer manner.
At Tucson’s Eastside City Hall, a group of teens meet every other Tuesday evening as part of Pima County Teen Court. These teens come here to serve their jury duties, which are constructive consequences for former teen defendants who were arrested and come to Teen Court. On this particular evening, there are four teen jurors, who have all been arrested before, one teen clerk/bailiff, who volunteers at Teen Court for fun, and one adult magistrate, who works at Teen Court. Of these four teen jurors, two were arrested for marijuana possession, and two of the cases on this particular docket were drug-related offenses: one was a minor in possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia charge, and the other was a minor driving under the influence of alcohol charge. The teen jurors participated in a Peer Justice Panel, through which they asked each defendant about his or her offense as well as about himself or herself in general.
The first drug-related case involved a 17 year-old male who was arrested for driving with a .018 blood alcohol count after a party during which he had been drinking. He claimed to have been driving another girl who needed a ride home, because he wanted to help her out. The two teen jurors who had been arrested for drug possession asked him lots of questions about his arrest, such as:
“Did you know you were endangering yourself by offering to drive another girl home while you were intoxicated?”
“Do you know that alcohol is illegal for those under 21 years of age?”
“Have you drank alcohol since your arrest? Do you plan to drink again (until you are legally allowed to)?”
These questions were met with various responses, including claims made by the defendant that he had been drinking to celebrate his friend’s birthday and that he knew what he was doing was illegal but he chose to do it anyway.
The two teen jurors who were arrested for drug-related offenses also offered helpful words of advice to the defendant. They told him he “was lucky to still be alive” because “the situation could have gotten worse” had he kept driving. They also told him that “he might not be standing here today” if he continues to drive under the influence of alcohol in the future.
The defendant nodded emphatically, and it appeared that he realized how fortunate he was to not have been killed that night. He also agreed that drinking alcohol is bad for his brain and that it is wrong to endanger someone else’s life. Upon being asked, he revealed that he has clear goals for the future- including pursuing real estate and, ultimately, business management. With his outgoing and friendly demeanor, the teen jurors found this unsurprising and wished him well with regards to his career goals.
Upon deliberating, the teen jurors decided to sentence the defendant to one mandatory basic training, one jury duty, since he appeared remorseful and seemed to have made up for his actions and have clear goals for the future, two letters of apology- one to his mother for having to accompany him to his hearing and pay the Teen Court fees, and one to the girl whose life he endangered, one mandatory substance abuse prevention workshop, and one independent study on the topic of impaired driving. The defendant will have to complete these constructive consequences within thirty days.
The second drug-related case involved a 14 year-old female who was arrested for possessing marijuana and drug paraphernalia on school property on two separate occasions. According to the defendant, the first occasion was when she took a prescription bottle filled with marijuana from her friend (who gave it to her) and threw it near a tree. She was later searched and a grinder filled with marijuana was found in her backpack. The second occasion was when she was caught with lighters and a pipe at school. She claimed that none of these items belonged to her and that she was holding the grinder, lighters, and pipe for her friend.
The teen jurors, one of whom was arrested for bringing drug paraphernalia to school, and the other who got caught for smoking marijuana, once again asked thoughtful questions, given that they had experienced similar situations in the past. These questions included:
“Why would you offer to hold the paraphernalia for your friend? Didn’t you know that you would be blamed if it was found?”
“For how long and with what frequency were you smoking marijuana prior to your arrest? Have you smoked since? Do you plan to smoke in the future? Why or why not?”
“What drives you to smoke marijuana?”
When the defendant responded that she smoked to relieve stress, the teen jurors asked some more questions.
“What type of stress were you facing?”
“Are you aware that there are other ways to combat stress? Can you list some other ways?”
The defendant proceeded to list other ways, including “swimming, writing in a journal, or hanging out with friends.” She also claimed that she does not spend time with the friends who she was holding the drug paraphernalia for. She admitted to smoking nearly every week for a year before her arrest, but claimed that she has not smoked since and listed some negative effects of smoking, including brain damage and addiction.
The teen juror who was previously arrested for smoking marijuana offered some positive words of advice. “Marijuana is not worth it. It messes with your brain and once you start, you keep doing it and can’t stop. Even if you do stop, it is so easy to start again.” He spoke passionately, reflecting on his own experiences with the drug while giving advice to his peer.
The defendant revealed that other members of her family have struggled with drug addiction, which is not uncommon for many adolescents who use drugs or alcohol. The defendant’s mother revealed that the defendant has faced a lot of stress within the family, including her mother’s recent diagnosis with multiple sclerosis. Though this does not excuse her actions, it did provide an answer as to why the defendant turned to this behavior.
In the end, the teen jurors sentenced the 14 year-old girl to one mandatory basic training, two jury duties, since learning from the mistakes of her peers will prove valuable to her, two letters of apology- one to the principal of her school and another to her mother, for having to deal with this situation and pay the fees associated with Teen Court, one mandatory substance abuse prevention workshop, one self-improvement workshop, so she can define her goals for the future more clearly, and one journal writing session, since she herself noted that writing in a journal is a good way to relieve stress.
After the two cases were over, the teen jurors were exhausted, but admitted that jury duty turned out to be interesting and fun. They truly enjoyed helping their peers and giving them motivational words of advice. One of the teen jurors admitted that jury duties were very helpful to him because they empowered him to make decisions on behalf of his peers who have experienced similar situations as he has in the past. Another teen juror admitted that the workshops, especially the substance abuse prevention workshop, have been helpful to her, and that the consequences were very beneficial.
Overall, both former and current defendants benefited from this Tuesday night experience. Teen Court focuses on restorative justice, looking to productive solutions and rehabilitation as opposed to punishment. The two teen jurors have not smoked marijuana or drank alcohol since their arrests, and, from their words of advice to their peers, it is clear that they know the consequences and know that drugs and alcohol “are not worth it.” Best of all, these two teens are even hoping to come back and volunteer at Teen Court just for fun. And upon leaving City Hall, they made sure to get the necessary information.
By Meena Venkataramanan