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Florida Teens Will Face Jury of Peers

June 14, 1989

DADE CITY, Fla. (AP) _ Teens who get in trouble with the law in this central Florida community may soon face trial in front of a jury of their peers - literally.

Starting this fall, six students will sit as jurors in twice-monthly proceedings in eastern Pasco County. And a teacher says they may be stricter than adult jurors.

The students will be selected alternately from two schools -Zephyrhills and Pasco Comprehensive high schools. The teen-agers, junior and senior high- school law-studies students, will hear testimony, return a verdict and recommend punishment.

But the presiding judge will have the final say on both verdict and the punishment in this Gulf Coast area 45 miles north of Tampa.

The school experiment is intended as a learning experience for students and a deterrent for young defendants, Cynthia Brendle, a teacher at Zephyrhills High School, said Tuesday.

In the past, the law studies teacher has taken her classes to juvenile court as observers.

″They thought the judges were too lenient, that the kids just got a slap on the wrist,″ she said. The teen-agers didn’t realize that the judge doesn’t always have room to incarcerate the teens because of a lack of a youth detention facility, she said.

Judges who helped start the program say they will give weight to jury recommendations.

″I’ve agreed that if I do not follow their recommendation I will explain why,″ said Circuit Judge Wayne L. Cobb, a proponent of the program.

Normally in trials involving juvenile defendants, a judge determines innocence or guilt, then hands down punishment for offenses such as burglary, battery and trespassing.

The sentences most commonly include probation, counseling and sometimes restitution.

The teen jury idea has been tried in Albany, Ore.; Bend, Ore., Odessa, Texas, and in Denver.

Sherry Pressler, a counselor who oversees the 3-year-old program in Bend, said it is working in that city of about 35,000.

″These kids are very much affected by the peer pressure,″ she said. ″They don’t like to go before their peers when they’ve done something wrong.″