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Advocates hope more minor peer courts pop up across Virginia

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The effort to prevent young people from finding themselves caught up in the criminal justice system has a new tool.

Court is now in session. But this is a court unlike the ones you're probably familiar with. The defendants are all children accused of minor offenses, and the idea is that these kids will receive justice without becoming part of the system. Local governments across Virginia can now create these peer courts because of legislation introduced by a Democrat from Newport News – Delegate Mike Mullin.

"This captures it before the juvenile court system even happens, and this is where kids are actually part of the process," Mullin says. "So kids are their own sort of mock jury. They are actively part of the process, so they are like peer-recovery specialists almost."

And those peer-recovery specialists play multiple roles in the courtroom, says Rise for Youth executive director Valerie Slater.

"The young people, children, will be the jury. They will be the commonwealth's attorney. They will be the prosecuting attorney," explains Slater. "The judge will be a practicing attorney. But every other position in the court will be a young person."

Since the enabling legislation was signed by the governor, two peer courts have been created — one in Richmond and another in Newport News. Advocates for this model hope it will be adopted in other locations across Virginia.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria. He has reported for NPR, the New York Daily News and the Alexandria Gazette Packet. He has a master's degree in American Studies from Florida State University, and he is a former adjunct professor at Tallahassee Community College. He is the author of four books.