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Bothell Youth Court is now in session
First-time traffic offenders could be given a second chance at Bothell Youth Court.
Traffic accidents, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are the No. 1 cause of death of teens - a fact that Bothell Youth Court volunteers hope to change. The youth court held its launch celebration at the University of Washington Bothell on Jan. 28.
Bothell Municipal Court Judge Michelle Gehlsen cited reasons both personal and professional for her involvement with the youth court. In 1982, her 16-year-old cousin was killed in a traffic accident. From then on, she said: “I knew I wanted to find a way to protect our youth from accidents that could’ve been avoided.”
While municipal courts rarely have the luxury of time, youth courts give teens a forum to discuss infractions more thoroughly and productively.
“I was immediately troubled with the little time I had with youth traffic violators during heavy adult dockets,” Gehlsen said. “I wanted time to discuss with them the repercussions of their dangerous behavior and ways to change it.”
First-time offenders can explain their circumstances before a jury of peers and have the infraction dropped from their record. By coming to the court, defendants admit guilt and after a hearing, the court decides an appropriate response to the infraction. This could include community service, volunteer hours or a project tailored to the defendant’s interests.
Samara Almonte, a 15-year-old Bothell High School student, said, “I really hope (my peers) see it as an opportunity of redeeming themselves and giving back to the community.”
UWB Professor Camille Walsh also emphasized the redemptive goals of the youth court.
“I truly believe in restorative justice, and this is a model that takes justice out of the hands of one person dispensing it up here and one person receiving it. It makes it a community project. I just believe passionately in that,” she said.
While Bothell Youth Court is a new fixture in the city, it is not a new concept. More than 1,400 youth courts have been established across the U.S., a number that Gehlsen points to as an indicator of the program’s proven effectiveness.
“I went and personally observed three youth courts and the professionalism that those courts have - I don’t feel worried whatsoever,” said Gehlson. “And they will always have an adult adviser present, so if they aren’t taking it as seriously as they should be then somebody will talk to them about it.”
Bothell Mayor Mark Lamb, Bothell Police Chief Carol Cummings and Northshore School District Superintendent Larry Francois were among the speakers at the event, congratulating and encouraging the volunteers for launching the program.
An official swearing-in of Bothell High School students was conducted by Judge Gehlsen, followed by a mock trial, showcasing what an actual youth court hearing might look like.
The program was a joint effort between the University of Washington Bothell and the Bothell Municipal Court. Walsh and Gehlsen spearheaded the project, enlisting involvement from Bothell High School and UWB students.
Gehlsen expects the court will hear as many as 60 cases throughout the year. The Bothell Youth Court will begin hearing cases on Feb. 11.
Ellito Suhr is a student in the University of Washington Department of Communication News Laboratory.