Kari Millstein was never particularly interested in the legal system. But in eighth grade some members of Kodiak Teen Court spoke in one of her classes, and Millstein decided to see what it was like. Now, Millstein, a senior in high school, is president of Teen Court, a teen judge and looking at the possibility of law school when she graduates next spring.
Kodiak’s Teen Court is a state-approved program where students in eighth grade and higher can become judges and attorneys in real criminal cases. The cases typically involve youth 18 and under who have chosen to go through Teen Court. Some cases come from the Alaska State Court system, as well as the Alaska Department of Juvenile Justice, and more often than not they include misdemeanor offenses and MIPs, which are minor in possession of alcohol offenses.
Millstein said Teen Court has been an influential experience in her life and taught her a lot about the legal system. She served as an attorney before becoming a judge, and said it’s definitely a weird experience to defend, prosecute and legally judge some of her every day peers.
“It’s hard not to seem sort of condescending, and I don’t want them to think of me as someone who thinks I’m so much better than they are. I just want them to know that I’m here to help. Because it could have just as easily been me in that situation, and maybe they were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
Andrew Ott is the legal adviser for Teen Court and said the process is beneficial for young offenders because it takes away the fear of going through the adult system and serves more of a learning purpose.
“There’s a lot of hand holding if you will going through the process so that everybody knows what’s going to happen, what we’re looking for, and we’re not going to sit there and punish the student for committing certain offenses. We’re here to basically restore them back into society and try to get them back on the right track.”
Perhaps the biggest incentive to use Teen Court is that the criminal record is erased once the minor goes through the process.
Millstein said she prefers being a judge, because she’s able to hear both sides of a case and think critically about how to assign a sentence. She and Ott said there have been some creative sentences in Kodiak, but most of them try to teach the offender something, rather than simply punish them.
“We can assign community service, we can assign a fine of about $25 because it’s a misdemeanor and any theft above $25 value is a felony. So there are several things we can do and for the alcohol cases we actually have to assign mandatory alcohol counseling. But we do other things as well, one of the most recent sentences we came up with was a list of 20 ingredients to cigarettes. That was a pretty good one because the defendant had to really think about what was in the cigarettes she was smoking.”
Other sentences have included essays or book reports. Millstein said another one of her favorites is having the offender watch an adult trial for a similar offense so they can see and hear what the penalties for any future crimes could be.
Ott said Kodiak Teen Court has about 50 members, with group of about 20 core, active participants.
“What’s interesting about Kodiak Teen Court is that it’s a program run by the students for the students. The adults that are in the program, myself and Ms. Turner who is the program manager, we’re the only adults that actually are in the process and then there are a few adult board members. But essentially, Kari being the president of the board, is my boss. So it’s kind of a reversal in roles that you would normally see, where the teens do actually have charge. And they do take their job very, very seriously about this and it’s a very serious sort of situation with dealing with teen defendants.”
He said that’s uniquely different than around the state, and definitely from the Lower 48, where more often than not an adult will judge most of the cases.
Kodiak Teen Court is currently recruiting new members and will start training classes in November. The classes are Mondays and Wednesdays from 6 to 8 p.m. and typically run for two months. Those interested should contact Kodiak Teen Court at 486-3550.