REDMOND, Ore. (AP) -- The teenage jurors discussed a theft case, debating what punishment the girl should get for stealing from a local store.
One juror suggested the girl should have to write an essay.
"On what?" asked Natashia Kissell, 17, another juror on Redmond's teen court, as she mimicked writing an essay, "stealing is not good?"
The jurors, who wore matching blue polo shirts, laughed and decided an essay wouldn't do any good. Instead, the jury gave the girl community service and made her apologize to her mother in court. She also had to write a letter of apology to the store. The sentence is typical of teen courts, which often require the teens to apologize for their crimes, perform dozens of hours of community service and take classes that include anger management.
Redmond's teen court isn't the only one in Central Oregon, but it's one of the region's most active, according to police officials. The court fits into a broad range of juvenile justice programs in the city, including school resource officers and a dedicated juvenile police officer.
But for the age of jurors and the judge, the teen court appears every bit a regular court.
In a courtroom next to the Redmond Police Department recently, a teen bailiff called the court into session.
Everyone stood as the judge -- Deanne Painter, 19 -- entered.
Almost every decision in the court is made by teen volunteers. If a sentence is unreasonable, though, Eric Beckwith, who manages the court, sometimes cautions the jurors not to overdo it. Beckwith then stays in contact with each teen offender to make sure he or she completes the sentence.
At that point, the crime is removed from the teen's record. The teen court experience often inspires teens to return to the court as volunteers, Beckwith said.
"Every kid that comes through the teen court, we open that to them," he said. "That's pretty neat for us, because they have a different insight."
The teens who appear before the court have all been arrested and charged with real crimes. To have their cases heard by the teen court, they also have to admit responsibility for the crime.
The court doesn't deal with teens charged with violent crimes, but does handle serious cases, including theft and harassment. The teens also only hear cases involving first-time offenders, according to Beckwith.
"We're not dealing with kids who took a 2-by-4 to someone's head," Painter said.
Some of the jurors have gone through the teen court before -- as defendants.
Kissell said about three years ago, she was in the court because she'd been in a fight. She had to do community service and give a written apology to a girl she'd hit.
She still feels lucky that she went through teen court and not the regular juvenile court.
"It happened a long time ago," Kissell said. "If I would've hurt her, I would've been in juvenile court."
Because she appeared before the teen court, Kissell said she understands what the teens are going through. That peer insight may be key to why the teen court works, Beckwith said.
But studies have not been able to confirm why teen courts work, though they seem to be effective, according to a 2002 Urban Institute study. The study focused on courts in four states -- Alaska, Arizona, Maryland and Missouri -- and gathered statistically significant data on repeat offenders in two of those.
In Alaska, 6 percent of those who appeared before the teen court re-offended, compared to 23 percent for youth who hadn't gone through the court.
In Missouri, 9 percent committed new crimes, while 28 percent of youth who didn't attend the teen court re-offended, according to the study.
In Deschutes County, about 30 percent of youths become repeat offenders, while Redmond's teen court rate is about 10 percent.
Beckwith theorized the teen court model works because it ties together a youth's crime and the sentence. A teen, he said, doesn't just end up spending time in a juvenile detention center. Rather, he said, the sentence relates to the crime.
"It's not a form of punishment but a way of repairing harm," Beckwith said. "If they're out there spray painting, we're going to want the kid to go fix that."
Painter, the judge, suggested the teen court system is less intimidating than a regular juvenile court. The teen connects better with the jury and judge, she said, and so they feel better understood.
"I think it feels less punitive than a regular court," she said.
But the teen court isn't always a friendly place.
In court Painter listened to facts of a theft case and nodded her head skeptically at the testimony. Wearing a black robe, she looked like a judge in a normal courtroom.
She challenged the teen and asked, "Why are you here?"
Teen courts can be inexpensive to run because volunteers staff them. Redmond's annual teen court budget, for example, is $1,000.
But finding volunteers can also make it difficult to operate teen courts. Bend, for example, had a teen court until about a year ago, but keeping a consistent number of volunteers proved too time consuming, according to Narci Espinoza, the Bend Police Department's youth diversion manager.
"We put ours on hold, and I don't know when we'll pick it up again," Espinoza said.
In Jefferson County, the teen court is largely staffed by graduates of the court. As in Redmond, part of the sentence often requires teens to serve on the jury, according to Elizabeth Littledeer, who runs the program.
Littledeer, though, also relies on a mix of adult and teen volunteers. She has nine volunteer judges who rotate on a schedule. One of those judges is a teenager, Littledeer said.
Redmond's court, though, impressed Littledeer because it was entirely staffed by teen volunteers. Until Littledeer visited Redmond, the Jefferson County court didn't have a teen judge. But impressed by Painter, she appointed a teen judge. And the teens in Redmond run the court almost entirely by themselves. Littledeer supervises more of the process, she said.
"One of the things that impressed me (in Redmond) was that the kids ran the show," she said. "They have a strong group of kids that are self-motivated and keep on track on their own."
Redmond also has a core group of volunteers who have served on the court for years.
Painter has been a judge for two years. Miguel Hidalgo, 15, is a sophomore at the International School of the Cascades and has volunteered at the court since he was in sixth grade. Hidalgo sits on the jury and sometimes presents the facts of a case.
Hidalgo said he plans to stay on the court through high school.
"It gives me a sense that I'm helping out in the community, making it a better place," Hidalgo said. "I'm glad this program is here to help teens instead of sending them to jail. I feel it's a great thing for the community to have."
Once one of the volunteers reads the police report, jurors ask questions of the teen offender and sometimes his or her family. Then the jury deliberates, before handing down a sentence. The sentence usually includes community service, but jurors can get creative, according to Beckwith.
Sometimes a jury will order a teen to give a face-to-face apology to his or her victim. Other times, the teen will have to write a letter of apology on top of doing community service.
Painter admitted the sentences can sometimes seem light, giving the impression that a teen is getting off with barely a slap on the wrist. But she points to the low recidivism, and maintains that the court is successful.
The court also tries to make clear that things could get worse for the teens, Painter said.
"At times, maybe we are soft," she said. "Maybe they'll see the lenience and think, 'Hey, they're cutting me a break.'
"This is just the first step on the rung. If you fail here, the consequences do get harsher."