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  • Charlotte Luke

Evenings at the Courthouse: One Student’s Experience at Athens Peer Court

Charlotte Luke sits at the judge’s bench during an Athens Peer Court hearing. Photo by Ayah Abdelwahab.

Every Tuesday at 5 p.m., I arrive at the Athens-Clarke County (ACC) Courthouse for Athens Peer Court, a restorative justice program that diverts youth offenders from traditional juvenile court. Created in 2011 by ACC Juvenile Court Judge Robin Shearer and Emily Boness, a public service associate at the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia, the program trained its first cohort of middle- and high school-aged volunteers in February 2012. After completing my own 14-hour training in August 2018, I have since served as an advocate, judge, and jury member in sentencing hearings for youth charged with misdemeanor crimes like shoplifting and curfew violations. Several other Athens Academy students, including McKenzie Elrod, Jackson Scruggs, and Alexis Keeney, are also trained volunteers.

I enjoy spending my Tuesday evenings at the courthouse for several reasons. First and foremost, I value the restorative justice principles that ground Athens Peer Court, and I believe in the program’s capacity to benefit the Athens community. Respondents (our term for youth offenders) receive dispositions based on community service requirements, and jury members consider the charges and the facts of each case to determine the exact number of hours. By completing their dispositions, respondents can reconcile with the community and avoid entering the cycle of minor criminal offenses, detainment, and probation that plagues youth, especially African Americans and Latinos, across the country. Furthermore, Peer Court offers respondents a genuine chance at forgiveness: once respondents complete their community service hours, their charge is removed from their criminal records, unable to blemish future college or job applications.

Athens Peer Court also benefits Judge Robin Shearer and the ACC Juvenile Court. At a meeting with the Mayor’s Youth Assembly of Athens on Jan. 27, Judge Shearer explained that since she and her staff began prioritizing restorative justice policies through programs like Athens Peer Court, the annual number of cases that come before her bench has decreased significantly, which allows her to devote more attention to severe cases. As a result, public defenders, who handle the majority of juvenile complaints, also have fewer cases to juggle at one time. (According to Judge Shearer, most youth offenders in Athens cannot afford private lawyers.)

Finally, I enjoy meeting students from other schools in Clarke and Oconee counties and spending time with University of Georgia undergraduates, who serve as interns at Athens Peer Court, and law students, who train and mentor the volunteers. Because Athens Peer Court has given me the unique opportunity to talk to current students about their undergraduate and law school experiences, it has introduced me to the possibility of a career in public interest law.

I appreciate the ways in which I have personally benefited from Athens Peer Court, but it is even more important to me that respondents, their families, and the community at large benefit from the program, which I strongly believe is true. Athens Peer Court is a remarkable act of collaboration between the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, the University of Georgia School of Law, and, of course, local teenagers who volunteer to help their peers. I am proud that the efforts of these groups have produced such tangible dividends.

Current Athens Academy students who have completed training for Athens Peer Court: Brent Chandler, McKenzie Elrod, Alexis Keeney, Charlotte Luke, Emily Morris, Jackson Scruggs, Davis Slate, Nick Wieczorek, Anya Zalac