By Naomi Klouda
The grouchy old Grinch, a cave-dwelling creature possessing a heart two sizes too small, went on trial last week at West Homer Elementary School Youth Court.
The Grinch, represented by Ali McCarron, stood trial on three counts: trespassing, theft and dog cruelty.
The defense, a team of Michael Munns, Dexter Lowe and Mya Betts, produced an X-Ray showing what the size of a normal heart looks like. A doctor was their primary witness, answering questions on the stretching and stinginess of the human heart.
West Homer is the only elementary school in the state with a Youth Court Program. It is overseen by the Kenai Youth Court Program, directed by Ginny Espenshade. Fifth and six graders can take part through an after school program meeting from 3:30-5 p.m. each day. At the end, they take a bar exam testing them on actual Alaska laws relating to juvenile misdemeanors. Then they preside in actual court cases where the offences of young people under the age of 18 are handled.
Dr. Seuss’ story wasn’t that far off from trespass and theft issues the court handles.
The Grinch, you’ll recall, lives on snowy Mount Crumpit, up a steep, 3,000-foot mountain just north of Whoville. His only companion is his loyal, but heavily overworked dog, Max. From his perch atop Mount Crumpit, the Grinch can hear the noisy Christmas festivities and he grows annoyed.
The prosecution team, Rylyn Todd and Brenna McCarron, at West Homer contended the Grinch entered the village while the Who’s slept, and took all their gifts.
“We started with looking over the (facts), to find details that we could tell the jury to show the Grinch looked like he’s a big trouble maker. Once you started it got easier,” said Rylyn Todd. “Such as dog abuse, because of how he treated Max.”
Most of the five classrooms – who acted as the jury during the five times the trial was enacted – ended in hung juries, Espenshade said. “There were a lot of different perspectives” on what the Grinch did wrong.
But as the primary defense witness was able to show, a heart can stretch when it sees compassion or faith in human nature.
“His heart grew when he saw the people in Whoville celebrate Christmas even without any gifts,” Todd said.
That showed a glimmer of hope at the Grinch’s ability to rehabilitate, as well.
Along with the mock trial, two West Homer students were sworn in as judges last week by District Judge Margaret Murphy, Ali and Brenna McCarron. The other students serve as attorneys for the young people. Even though Ali and Brenna are in elementary school, they will be handling real life cases, under the assistance of Espenshade.
In April, for the first time Homer will host the 17th Annual Alaska Youth Court Conference, a big event that brings those involved in youth courts together from around the state.
Youth courts are getting good press for their role in “restorative justice,” an alternative to formal courts for minor and first-time offenders. The youth court process is entirely handled by youth volunteers who have received special training in informally adjudicating other youth. Youth offenders referred to youth courts typically are required to perform community service, to write essays describing the harm they have caused to victims, parents, and society, to attend classes (such as anti-shoplifiting classes), or other such informal adjustments.
According to a University of Alaska Justice Center evaluation, the youth court model helps reduce repeat offenses. An evaluation of Anchorage Youth Court by the Urban Institute found that only 6 percent of youths sentenced through the youth court reoffended within a six-month period after their sentence, compared with 23 percent of youths sentenced through the formal juvenile justice system.
In the case of the Grinch, a lot of real-life infractions can be addressed, even though the plot is a fictional creation.
“The kids were really thoughtful and really addressed the issue of trespassing,” Teacher Shirlie Gribble said. “The main theme came up that, even though he gave the gifts back eventually, is there ever a situation where it’s OK to steal?”
Sixth-grader Todd said she feels she and the other students “learned a ton more about how our justice system works.
“You realize it’s not fair to punish someone in some cases because his heart won’t grow – his heart will get smaller when you put him in jail.”
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