By Christina Calloway
PNT senior writer
Danyka Chaves is one high school senior who tries to see the good in her peers.
She understands the pressures of adolescence and how teens can make bad decisions, but she’s optimistic that those teens can turn their life around.
As a defense attorney with the Portales Teen Court program, she tries to relay that message to jurors about her defendants.
“Sometimes it’s hard because how the kids end up here, they just get in trouble and hang around the wrong people,” said Chaves, a veteran of the program and Portales High School student.
Teen Court is an alternative sentencing program for youth who commit misdemeanor crimes. The program is an extension of Portales Municipal Court.
Teen Court does not determine guilt or innocence, the youth, referred by area law enforcement agencies, understand they are admitting guilt to the crime they were charged with, according to Teen Court Coordinator Mary Poyner.
Teen Court trials happen monthly.
Poyner said the program gives the youth offenders an opportunity to serve community service for their crime without having a mark for it on their record.
The program also stresses peer involvement and education. Attorneys for both defense and prosecution as well as the jury are teens. The judge, who determines sentencing, is usually a volunteer, licensed attorney.
Chaves sees the benefit in serving her peers because she feels her defendants can better relate to people their age, even if at times they are scared to open up.
“I think the thing is, before we talk to them we tell them they can tell us anything and they can relate more because I’m around the same age and they trust me more,” said Chaves, an aspiring cosmetologist.
Though Chaves keeps busy with her media arts class, courses at Clovis Community College and her fast food job, she said her commitment to the Teen Court program is important because she believes in what it does for youth.
“I think it’s a good thing because if (defendants) want to get a good job or go to a good college, they won’t get judged for one mistake they made,” Chaves said. “Hopefully it makes them turn their life around and get on the right track before they really mess up and there’s no going back.”
Portales High School freshman Kegan Webb said though he’s passionate about the music industry, law is another career he’s considering.
Webb currently on the Teen Court jury and is preparing to become an attorney.
“We encourage them to do the right thing,” said Webb about his experience as a juror.
Webb said he’s most excited about learning as an attorney and looks forward to debating with his peers because he thinks it’s something he’s good at.
Most recently, Teen Court has contracted with Mental Health Resources of Portales to offer group counseling for defendants.
“Teen Court saw a need to have these services for defendants,” Poyner said. “Some need tutoring, some of them need to talk about what they’ve done. Some definitely are stubborn and refuse to absorb it, for others it gives them confidence.”
Volunteer Teen Court judge Sandra Gallagher said she’s been involved in helping teens with the judicial process as an attorney for years and champions the Teen Court program for offering alternatives for youth offenders.
“They learn how the legal system works,” Gallagher said. “I think it becomes real to them that there are consequences for their actions. Hopefully this helps break the cycle of the things they’re doing.”
Gallagher added she likes the way the program gets the community involved and how it gives youth a second chance to make things right.
“It gives them a chance to fix things without being in the system,” Gallagher said.
Teen Court by the numbers in 2013
• 54 referrals to the Teen Court program
• The youngest defendant was age 11 and the oldest was 17
• The top two crimes committed by defendants were public affray and drug possession