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Paying the price: Community Court

Community Court gives teen offenders a second chance -- but not without punishment

Posted: October 2, 2009 10:08 p.m.
Updated: October 3, 2009 4:55 a.m.

John Kunak, a Valencia attorney, gives a local minor community service for missing curfew. His case was one of 15 heard at the Community Court Kick-Off program at City Hall on Wednesday evening.

 
Sixteen-year-old Ashley stood before a Santa Clarita Community Court judge this week and explained why she stole $42 worth of jewelry from a J.C. Penney store last May.

"It was really close to prom, and I didn't have the time to ask for money," the Canyon Country girl said.

Instead of putting the petty theft charge on her permanent record, the judge offered Ashley - whose last name was withheld because she's under 18 - an alternative: 30 days probationary supervision, eight hours of community service, participation in a Teen Choices class, a fine of $117.50 and an assignment to write an essay on the effects of stealing on the economy.

John Kunak, a Valencia attorney who volunteers as a judge to hear the cases, also offered a few words of advice.

"Don't place yourself in this situation again," he told her. "You're lucky this is all that's going to be done."

Kunak is one of four volunteer judges who preside over eight to 10 criminal and 15 to 20 traffic cases twice every month, giving teens a chance to clear their records for minor, first-time and non-violent offenses.

Ashley's case was one of 15 heard Wednesday evening.

Teens, attending the first hearing date after the court's summer recess, sat beside their parents in the City Council Chambers as they waited for their cases to be called.

Kunak read their offenses, questioned them about their motives and urged the youths to reflect on their actions.

Before hearing Ashley's case, Kunak interrogated three teenage boys who started a fire in a shopping cart on a bicycle trail just a few feet away from brush last June. After one of the boys said they were trying to start a bonfire, Kunak explained the dangers of brush fires.

"It was totally ridiculous and embarrassing," one of the boys said about how he felt after getting caught.

"I'm not sure why we did it," one of his accomplices said. "We'll never do it again."

The city pays about $42,000 annually to run the community court that has been providing alternatives for delinquent teens since 2006, Community Services Supervisor Cynthia Llerenas said.

The program is also run by the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the William S. Hart Union High School District. It has tried more than 200 criminal and traffic cases, given 1,100 hours of community service and has seen 219 teens complete the program, according to the city's Web site.

"It's really to hold the teens accountable where they committed the crime," Llerenas said.

Through the community court program, teens pay fines and perform community service locally. If they were tried at the Sylmar Juvenile Courthouse, they would perform community service in the San Fernando Valley.

Kunak said the court also helps offenders learn from their mistakes and move forward.

"You don't want to see them have a serious detrimental effect on the rest of their life because of one little mistake," Kunak said.

"So you try to educate them. (You) make sure they understand why their offense was wrong, that it's not going to happen again, and then make them pay the price for what they did."

Ashley said she was grateful the court granted her a second chance, and no blemishes to her permanent record.

"It would be a lot harder for me to get a job and apply to colleges," she said. "We have one chance to re-do what we've done, and we can't make any more mistakes."

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