Trial by Peers Program Needs Help - 8 News NOW

Trial by Peers Program Needs Help

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LAS VEGAS -- Clark County is strapped for cash, and as it prepares for even more cuts, the juvenile court system will be stretched even thinner. Heavy caseloads are making it harder to give the right attention to young offenders.

The Trial by Peers program is making a difference by relieving some of that burden, but now its future is also uncertain because of funding. The program not only helps young offenders but also makes a difference in the lives of these teens.

"They accused me of writing on a desk, which I was never involved in none of that," said 17-year-old defendant Justin Bass. "I'm not really nervous because I'm going in there with the truth."

In the courtroom Bass enters, the jury, clerk, defense and prosecution are also all 18 and under, litigating in front of a real North Las Vegas Justice Court judge.

"The kids work really hard. They get really prepared, they're actually more prepared sometimes than what I see in my regular court," said Judge Stephen Dahl.

Through the Trial by Peers program, youth charged with minor offenses are allowed to plead not guilty and have their cases heard, complete with subpoenaed witnesses. Local attorneys observe and are there for support.

"As kids, we're told by adults, 'Don't do this, don't do that,' but as peers, telling each other, 'Don't do this, don't do that,' I think it has a more everlasting effect," said peer prosecutor Mayquel Carranza.

But more than half of its funding may be gone by next year. Judge Dahl and other attorneys volunteer their time. Still, each case comes at a cost of $250 -- money they soon may not have.

"Some of our donors are saying, 'You're going to be cut back 60 to 70 percent of what you had maybe more.' We may not even get anything," said Judge Dahl.

If the program is forced to close, youth like Bass who are charged with crimes would be dumped into the already overburdened juvenile court system where minor offenders are low on the priority list.

"Nothing happens to them because they don't have the manpower. They don't have the capability of handling these first time offenders," said senior attorney Mary Chapman. "If you get them the first time and they have a consequence for it, they're likely not to do it again."

But the program doesn't just benefit offenders, for volunteers like Carranza it is a great way to prepare for college, where he plans on studying law.

A teacher's aid on the stand testifies she caught Bass in the act, vandalizing a desk at school with graffiti. He claims he didn't do it. In the end, the jury finds him guilty and gives him double the minimum sentence -- 16-hours of community service. He must also serve on a jury three times.

The punishment not only cleans his record, but organizers say puts him back on the path to success.

Trial by Peers has been around for almost 15 years and is put on by the Clark County Law Foundation. With funding in limbo, organizers are turning to the local legal community to donate money and keep the program going.

One former defendant who has stolen since she was seven says it has given her the motivation to come back and help others as a peer counselor.

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