Paul Wellman

After receiving $45,000 in grants, Santa Maria Teen Court recently kicked off its new Young Ladies Leadership Class. Only three students attended the debut session, but the program is expected to expand to 12-15 girls per class and matriculate around 125 young women this year. The City of Santa Barbara already has a girls’ program within its Teen Court system, but for Santa Maria, this is an opportunity to “tailor it to meet the needs of our community,” according to program manager Crystal Moreno.

The Teen Court Program, which is part of the Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse (CADA) and was established in 1992, acts as an alternative to criminal hearings for juveniles. The court doesn’t determine the culpability of an offender. Instead, it accepts the cases of those who committed first-time, admitted-guilt misdemeanor crimes, such minor assault, petty theft, and drug/alcohol consumption or possession. The “sentences” handed down can be community service, counseling, teen court jury duty, or educational courses — like the Young Ladies Leadership Class.

The court’s jurors are all teens who have either been ordered to serve, are completing community service, or are simply exploring the justice system. The judge, whether it’s a school administrator or an area attorney, oversees and mentors the jury.

Teen Court boasts an impressive 98 percent completion rate among participants, but is seeing more and more young women enter its proceedings. Females used to make up 20 percent of Teen Court’s offenders, but their presence has nearly doubled, up to 36 percent. Moreno, throughout her eight years of experience, has seen the types of offenses committed by girls evolve as well, with significantly more drug- and alcohol-related offenses and an increase in violent crimes.

The forum-style, six-week Young Ladies Leadership Class attempts to work as another mode of recourse for the expanding needs of teens in Santa Maria. Every week for an hour, the program’s participants meet to discuss topics ranging from stress reduction, to effective communication with friends and family, to self-assessment and self-esteem.

An interesting cast of guest speakers is scheduled to come in to talk to each new set of participants. Examples include April Araujo, from the Scholarship Foundation of Santa Barbara (she’ll talk about college and scholarship opportunities), and Joelyn Lutz, a longtime musician in a female band.

According to Moreno, “[The class] is great for all young women, regardless of whether or not they’ve run into trouble with the law.” CADA’s youth services, especially the Teen Court system, are as valuable to individual participants as they are to the community, she explained. Rather than receiving fines or being put on probation, teens are offered opportunities to talk about their lives — and not just the times they got into trouble. Program staff try to help Teen Court participants holistically. The kid who gets booked for petty theft, for instance, may allude to a fledgling alcohol or drug problem that, if unaddressed, could have led to a second arrest.

Jane Highstreet, director of Special Events for CADA, said that it costs the county an average of $4,800 to work a teen charged with a minor offense through the criminal justice system. Teen Court drops those associated fees to around $500, and eliminates expensive requirements like check-ins with probation officers.


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