Amanda rocks back and forth before a podium in the middle of the room, facing the jury. Picking at the flaking polish on her thumbnail, she stares at her shoes. When she answers one of the jurors' questions, she mumbles into her chest.
'I was scared,' she explains. 'I was thinking, 'I hope I don't get caught.''
Amanda (a pseudonym) is charged with retail theft. The court spokesperson, a girl named Susan (also a pseudonym), explains that if this were adult court, Amanda's crime 'could be classified as a Class A misdemeanor,' punishable by up to a $10,000 fine and nine months in jail.
Instead, this is Youth Court, part of the Dane County Timebank program. Susan and the jury members are all young students. Now they are sitting stoically in judgment of one of their peers.
Amanda is 13 years old and attends a local middle school. She is being 'tried' at the UW Law School, on a recent Saturday. Her crime: She stole underwear and perfume from a local department store. She is the sixth person to participate in Youth Court, which provides young people with an alterative to juvenile court.
Teenagers come to Youth Court for sentencing only, having already admitted guilt. The program, run with the consent of police and other authorities, deals with youths charged with minor crimes, like petty theft, vandalism and disorderly conduct. Offenders who successfully complete the terms of their sentence can avoid prosecution.
The court, which gets most of its funding from state Department of Justice grants, is modeled on a program in Washington, D.C. But Stephanie Rearick, the court's creator and sole paid employee, feels Madison's program goes a step farther.
'The D.C. program is not integrated in a neighbor-to-neighbor sort of way,' she says. But one of the court's goals is 'to get the entire community involved.'
As Rearick puts it, 'This is a chance for regular people in the community to step up and help young people succeed.'
Presiding over the Youth Court is Advocate Judge Irene Erwin, a Timebank volunteer who has worked in the criminal justice system. She oversees the court proceedings, providing the necessary legal background, and gives kids rides home after the court adjourns.
'I am really just amazed at [the jurors'] insight,' says Erwin. 'They are amazingly astute in terms of the dynamics that can be affecting a case.'
One of the jurors in Amanda's case, another young girl, is quick to challenge her: 'Do you think it's wrong just because you got caught? If you hadn't got caught, would you have regretted it?'
Amanda answers honestly, saying she probably wouldn't have thought about it much if she hadn't been caught.
Dane County Timebank is an innovative local program similar to Madison Hours. Members trade skills and services in exchange for 'time dollars,' with one hour of work equal to one time dollar. These are then used to purchase the skills or services of other members within the Timebank.
The program's Web site (www.danecountytimebank.org) provides a list of all services available to its members, everything from arts, crafts and foreign-language lessons to law services and home-repair providers.
Youth Court is a relatively new component of the Timebank. Volunteers began recruiting youth in Madison schools this past summer, provided training in October and held their first court session in November. In March, the court had 10 referrals.
'The Timebank has about 400 members,' says Rearick. 'Some don't even know about the Youth Court. It's really just one component of the larger thing. But those that do are really excited about it.'
All Timebank members, including the Youth Court jury, exchange services. Susan, who's interested in the legal profession, is saving up time dollars so she can 'shadow' a professional attorney. Others hope to trade for horseback riding lessons. One young man, the first to successfully complete a Youth Court sentence, is staying on as a volunteer juror to earn time dollars.
'Everybody has something to give, and that's what the Timebank recognizes,' says Cheri Maples, president of the program's board of directors. Maples has spent 25 years in the criminal justice system, as a Madison police officer, corrections official and assistant attorney general. 'It's the great equalizer, because a lawyer's time or a doctor's time is worth no more than someone who works at McDonald's.'
Maples is especially excited about the program's criminal justice aspects, including the participation of inmates and parolees and, now, the Youth Court.
'It's the only truly preventative program that I know of that is the alternative to the courts,' she says. 'This is what everyone has hoped for. At the first sign of trouble, the kids are getting referred to helpers who will hopefully keep them away from going down that wrong path.'
Indeed, Maples says, 'This is the most creative public safety tool I have ever been a part of.'
Greg Rosetti, a Madison police officer who works in the Darbo-Worthington neighborhood and is involved in Youth Court referrals, also sings the program's praises.
'The juvenile system is really a huge bureaucracy,' says Rosetti. 'It's such a big system, you are just one little person in there. With the peer court system, you are with people in the neighborhood, and they understand where you are coming from better, so the sentences are a little bit more creative.'
Youth Court sentences, imposed by the juries, commonly include apologies and restitution. Offenders may be asked to do community service in their neighborhoods, or attend life-skills classes.
'When you do something wrong, your responsibility is not only for yourself, it's for your community as well,' says Rosetti. 'You have to ask, what can you do to make the victim feel right again, but also, what do you have to do to make your community right again?'
But like Rearick and Maples, Rosetti wishes that the Youth Court was better funded. 'This is a real positive thing, and this could be the way things are going in Dane county in terms of juvenile crime,' he says. 'But someone needs to come forward with some money to support us.'
The Timebank has operated thus far on a $50,000 state grant. It is now asking the state for $58,000 a year for the Youth Court alone. Eventually, Rearick hopes the Timebank will have an annual budget of $200,000.
Back in the courtroom, Amanda waits patiently as the jury convenes in chambers to review possible sentences.
One juror comments that Amanda seems to be trying to stay out of trouble. 'Yeah,' agrees Susan. 'We just need to push her in the right direction.'
In the end, Amanda is sentenced to write a letter of apology to the store she stole from; two hours of money-management classes organized through Timebank (and whose teachers also earn time dollars); and 12 hours of community service with after-school programs.
'We'll help you through this,' Judge Erwin tells Amanda as her sentence is imposed. 'Ninety days and it all goes away. Just remember that, if you don't finish, your case [will be] moved on to juvenile court.'