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Georgia Bar Journal
August 2021, Vol. 27, No. 1

Peer Courts: Showing Young Offenders a Different Path

I grew up in an area of southern Arkansas that was economically distressed and, likely as a result, I witnessed a fair amount of conflict and violence in my school. To address the increase in violence, my school implemented a peer mediation program when I was in middle school as an alternative means of discipline for some of the students who were getting into trouble. I was selected to be trained and serve as a peer mediator.

As a middle school student, serving as a peer mediator was an eye-opener. It ultimately led me to understand the importance of a “jury of one’s peers.” For the student referred to the program, they often responded more favorably to talking to a fellow student and resolving whatever the underlying conflict was that gave rise to the infraction. It also created a sense of civic responsibility in the students to help their peers. These experiences helped form my appreciation of the justice system’s role in helping people peacefully resolve their problems. It is no surprise that those years heavily influenced my decision to become a lawyer. 

For the last nine years, through a joint effort of state and local agencies, Georgia has successfully run its own peer court for juvenile offenders. Founded in 2012 as a collaboration with the Athens-Clarke County Juvenile Court, the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice, the University of Georgia School of Law and UGA’s J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, the Athens Peer Court is a diversionary program that offers young people who have been arrested a chance to have their cases’ dispositions decided by fellow middle and high school students who are trained to serve as lawyers, judges, jurors and bailiffs.

Georgia’s second peer court was started in 2015 by the Forsyth County Juvenile Court, supported by a grant from the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council and in coordination with the Fanning Institute, which is working to expand into other counties as soon as possible. 

In both Athens-Clarke and Forsyth County, youth volunteers conduct sentencing hearings for their peers who are first-time defendants charged with various misdemeanor offenses. The youth offenders who successfully complete their dispositions are able to learn from their mistakes but avoid having permanent records and/or contact with the juvenile court system. Cases are resolved in a timely manner, as 60% of youth offenders participating in Athens Peer Court have had their hearings within 30 days of being charged.

For the students who volunteer to run the peer court, the value is in the 13 hours of training in leadership skills, public speaking, an understanding of restorative justice and confidentiality. Students learn and have an opportunity to practice how to interview a client, how to give an opening statement and how to serve on a jury to determine a fair and appropriate disposition.

As a means of expanding the peer court program to other communities around Georgia, the Fanning Institute has established the Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Peer Court Initiative to raise funds for that purpose and honor the legacy of one of Georgia’s most respected jurists.

During nearly four decades in the legal profession and justice system, Judge Johnson was both the first African American attorney and first African American Superior Court judge in Newton County. Dedicated to the betterment of his profession and his community, Judge Johnson regularly mentored young lawyers, started a mentoring program in the Newton County School System and worked to start a Boys and Girls Club in his hometown of Covington.

As a judge who fought for justice, fairness and compassion, Judge Johnson was a pioneer in the realm of alternative sentencing. He started parental accountability courts in the Alcovy Judicial Circuit (Newton and Walton counties) and opened a treatment court for veterans.

Judge Johnson’s untimely passing on July 1, 2020, at the age of 61 was a tremendous loss for the entire Georgia legal community. During my years in State Bar leadership, my path crossed with Judge Johnson’s on numerous occasions. For everyone who has ever known him, he had a way of making you feel you were the most important person in the room.

By seeking to train future generations to give back to their communities, promote justice and fairness, and act with compassion, the Peer Court Initiative named in his honor thus speaks in a meaningful way to the legacy of servant leadership left by Judge Horace Johnson.

It is a way for these young people to move forward and grow from their experiences. No one chooses to be in that situation, but accountability courts are tools for our justice system to resolve problems.

At this point you might be thinking, all that is very nice, but do peer courts actually work? Yes, they do. The Athens Peer Court reports that 78% of the youth offenders it saw between 2017 and 2020 did not reoffend. Lowering youth recidivism rates lead to better outcomes for youth and long-term benefits for the community. According to studies, between $1.7 million and $5.3 million is saved when diverting a youth from more serious infractions with the justice system.

In nine years, more than 660 youth offenders and 300 youth volunteers have had the opportunity to engage with their community, learn new skills and make a positive contribution through service and volunteerism. Now, the Judge Horace J. Peer Court Initiative seeks to replicate the successful Athens-Clarke and Forsyth County models by providing seed money to other jurisdictions throughout the state.

According to Matthew L. Bishop, director of the Fanning Institute, peer courts can be set up by a Juvenile Court judge or court administrator, or even a local Division of Family and Children Services office or local youth advocacy group. “But ultimately, it’s run through the Juvenile Court,” Bishop added. “The judge creates a set of standards for what cases he or she would be willing to send to peer court.  The whole idea is to catch young, first-time offenders as soon as we can and show them a different path so they won’t reoffend. It saves money for the taxpayers and reduces a judge’s caseload not having to adjudicate those in Juvenile Court.”

I hope you will join me in supporting this expansion effort by considering a contribution to the Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Peer Court Initiative, honoring the legacy of our late friend and colleague, and providing technical assistance and support to communities in Georgia that would like to start a peer court. You can learn more and donate online by visiting www.fanning.uga.edu/programs/athens-peer-court/ or by writing a check payable to the UGA Foundation (note “Judge Horace J. Johnson Jr. Peer Court Initiative” in memo) and mailing it to the J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development, 1240 S. Lumpkin St., Athens, GA 30602.

For more information on starting a peer court in your community, contact Emily Boness, a public service associate attorney with the Fanning Institute, at 706-542-1472 or boness@fanning.uga.edu.