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Teens are judges, attorneys and defendants in a Cass County diversion program

Youth Court volunteers in Cass County conduct a mock trial.
Cass County Youth Court Archive
Youth Court volunteers in Cass County conduct a mock trial.

A diversion program in Cass County's Juvenile Court system aims to steer kids away from the negative impact of a criminal record while simultaneously teaching other youth volunteers about the law.

A diversion program in Cass County's juvenile justice system is putting youth volunteers in charge to prosecute, defend and sentence minors accused of a first-time, misdemeanor offense.

Youth court, a process nearly identical to the legal proceedings of a municipal court, trains middle and high school-aged volunteers in the criminal justice process. Then, the youth volunteers apply what they've learned to actual juvenile cases.

Raymore-Peculiar High School sophomore Ashley Davis prefers to be the defense attorney.

"I'm just focused on trying to better the person in front of me," she said, "by making impressions on them, and trying to help them get out of trouble and get back on the right path."

First-time, non-violent offenders are referred to the peer-run court program on a case-by-case basis. The accused and their guardians must opt into the youth court process — where, similar to a traditional case, the defendant is assigned a youth defense attorney.

The juvenile defendant meets with their youth counsel to discuss the charges, if they want to plead guilty and potential sentencing or plea agreement options. The peer volunteers are responsible for proving the client innocent or guilty and issuing the sentencing. Adult volunteer judges and other legal professionals are on hand if the kids have difficulty with the case.

Davis has been participating in the program since she was 14.Participants are assigned to the key positions of a courtroom, including bailiffs and judges, based on their experience level.

"It was very intimidating to begin with because it was just such a big opportunity that I felt like I couldn't mess up," Davis said.

To participate in the program, the 7th-12th grade volunteers must complete the training program, pass the youth bar exam and be sworn in.

Throughout the process, volunteers learn life skills through hands-on experience and gain an understanding of the legal system.

"It really just helped me to be more responsible and figure out how to work with others best," said Davis.

The juvenile justice system also benefits from the program.

"It takes a burden off of the formal juvenile justice system," said Division III, Cass County Associate Circuit Judge Jim Eftink. "The judges and the juvenile prosecutors and defense counsel can handle these much more serious matters which require much more work and more concentration effort."

Trespassing, shoplifting, fighting and possession of nicotine are some of the cases commonly referred to the program.

A guilty verdict could sentence the defendant to a course related to the offense, such as anger management, conflict resolution or fire safety. Other punishments include writing an essay, community service or a curfew.

"It seems to have a more long-lasting effect upon them to have someone who's their own age serving as the judge, telling them what they have done is wrong and they should not do that," said Eftink.

Successful completion of the diversion program clears the minor's file, leaving no permanent record. Eftink, who was previously a public defender for juveniles, said the court process reduces the likeliness of the child reoffending.

Eftink said the defendants are often made to apologize to their parents .

"I'd say more often than not, they have tears in their eyes and they start crying as they apologize to their parents. So I think that, as we've said, it just affects them and makes them not want to repeat their conduct," said Eftink.

  • Judge Jim Eftink, associate circuit judge, Division 3, board of directors of the Cass County Youth Court
  • Ashley Davis, youth court participant
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