BOTHELL —Judge Michelle Gehlsen has just a few minutes to emphasize the importance of safe driving skills to teenagers appearing before her with traffic violations.
“Usually the parent just pays the ticket, but how does that change behavior? What did they learn?” said Gehlsen, who works in Bothell Municipal Court. “I didn’t have time to really educate.”
Car crashes are the leading cause of death for teenagers, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Rather than just paying a fine, Gehlsen wanted a process that would allow offending teenagers time to reflect.
That dilemma led her to establish the Bothell Youth Court with UW Bothell Professor Camille Walsh.
The youth-led court gives young drivers an alternative to municipal court. Since established in 2013, the court has heard nearly 100 cases.
To participate, students have to be between 16 and 17 years old and have no previous tickets. Teens must also acknowledge guilt. The benefit is that the ticket is not reported to the department of licensing and there are no insurance ramifications, Gehlsen said.
Youth court procedures began like many other courts. A judge is introduced, opening statements are read and experts testify.
But when it comes to choosing a sentence, known in youth court as a disposition, a restorative justice approach is taken. Court is recessed as the jury, attorneys and the offending student form a circle to collectively decide a penalty.
The conversations start with students discussing who might have been harmed by the traffic infraction. Students give suggestions on how similar situations could be handled in the future.
“Hearing from your peers as a young driver is really important,” said Julia Kozak, 18, a senior at Bothell High School and president of the youth court. “You can hear the same thing from your parents, but once you hear it from a friend you believe it.”
And when it comes to deciding a sentence, the restorative justice circle first gets to know the offending student to better understand how the punishment will affect them. The student is encouraged to offer input.
The youth court has the authority to give out fines. But that is rare, Walsh said.
“Generally what the youth are interested in finding is what’s going to develop the skills to do something differently next time,” Walsh said. “They want to address the underlying cause.”
Michelle Reyes, 17, a senior at Monroe High School and a participant in May’s youth court, found her sentence fair — five hours of community service and a reflection paper. The 17-year-old was cited for failing to yield to oncoming traffic when turning left, causing a crash.
Her peers opted for a lighter punishment than the previous hearing because of Reyes’ daily family commitments, which include picking up a younger sister from school each afternoon.
“It was fair enough,” Reyes said. “I’m busy, but I can make the time.”
Gehlsen, who usually hands out fines in her municipal courtroom, pointed to a student who was caught speeding in a school zone. The youth court assigned him crosswalk duty near a school.
“His essay was so powerful about what he learned,” Gehlsen said. “He said, ‘I didn’t realize that people really don’t stop at crosswalks and kids really do run out into the street. I learned why it’s so important to not speed in a school zone.’ ”