Two teenagers left the Sarpy County (Nebraska) Courthouse the evening of Jan. 7 with something much better than the school meals and two bottles of vodka they admitted to stealing.
Courtesy of 13 teen jurors and a judge drawn from the student body of the Creighton University School of Law, they left Courtroom No. 2 free of criminal records and without probation hanging around their necks, but with commitments to community service, teen jury involvement, attendance at seminars dealing with peer pressure and alcohol abuse, and, in the case of the vodka thief, a letter of apology to his mother.
This was Sarpy County Teen Court, a division of Sarpy County’s juvenile diversion program that seeks to divert low-level juvenile offenders from the juvenile or county court systems where criminal records may be established. The court meets every two weeks and consists of volunteer jurors, judges and defense and prosecution attorneys, all — with the exception of the judges— drawn from area middle or high schools.
Seven Creighton law students have been recruited by Teen Court program manager Leonard Matthias to serve as judges. They are Alexis Munchrath, BA’16, Amber Schlote, Caroline Hansen, Dallas Alfaro, Hattie Miller, Maggie Brokaw and Michaela Devitt.
On the evening of Jan. 7, Devitt wielded the gavel.
They were simple enough cases. A 17-year-old boy had been caught on camera taking a school lunch without paying for it, while a 15-year-old boy was nabbed for stealing two bottles of vodka. The offenses were not in dispute, with only the consequences to be settled by the teen jurors.
Devitt primarily maintained trial order, kept things moving along and helped jurors reach the required unanimous recommendation for consequences. Unanimity proved elusive in the case of the vodka thief, with some jurors insisting that 15 hours of community service was more appropriate than the 10 hours favored by the majority. Devitt broke the deadlock by suggesting an apology letter be added to 10 hours of service.
A first-year law student and a native of Council Bluffs, Devitt sat on the bench for the third time since she joined the pro-bono program in October.
“I’m looking at becoming a criminal defense lawyer, and I really like diversion programs,” she said.
“What’s neat about my role is that it’s so much bigger than just the defendant. The prosecution and the defense are usually high school students who want to be law students, and I get to talk to them and connect with them.
“Same with members of the jury. Some of those might be interested in law. I get to be an example of a law student to people who are considering entering the profession, in addition to perhaps impacting somebody who might be headed down the wrong path.”
Matthias, the teen court coordinator, said the partnership with Creighton University began about two years ago when Andy Vuorela, JD’17, then a law student, offered to contact law school administrators about students fulfilling their pro bono service requirements by serving as Teen Court judges.
“I was always looking for judges, sometimes I’d ask parents, but he offered to talk to the law school and I was definitely for that,” Matthias said. “So, he set that all up with his advisors and they contacted me.”
The presence of Creighton’s lawyers-in-training has strengthened the Teen Court program, he said.
“The Creighton law schoolers help the attorneys formulate their questions and give them feedback on how to improve their performance,” Matthias said. “It’s a really good resource for the kids to have an actual Creighton law student in the courtroom with them.”
Katelyn Cherney, BA’08, staff attorney with Creighton’s Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic, which provides free legal assistance to low-income Douglas County residents, said pro-bono work such as serving on Teen Court is an indispensable part of a Creighton legal education.
“Not only do students provide a service to the community, but these experiences offer our students direct exposure to the legal system at work,” she said. “When law students participate in pro bono work meant to improve access to justice, it exemplifies the role of lawyer as public servant and strengthens public confidence in the justice system.”