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Cash McDearis, 15, serves as the judge during a Athens Peer Court hearing inside the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse in downtown Athens, Georgia on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. McDearis is a ninth grader at Clarke Central High School and has been participating in Athens Peer Court, a youth diversion program, for a year. (Photo/Caitlin Jett)

First-time juvenile offenders, charged with a misdemeanor, are receiving a second chance in the Athens-Clarke County court system.

Athens Peer Court, created in March 2012, is a youth diversion program for respondents, or juvenile offenders. The program is a hearing led by trained youth volunteers serving as the jury, lawyers and judge; the youth volunteers decide on a punishment for the juvenile offender, such as community service or an apology letter.

“I think the ultimate goal of a program like this in many people’s eyes is reducing recidivism, hoping that peer court is a second chance that they don’t need another chance,” said Emily Boness, director of Athens Peer Court and public service associate at J.W. Fanning Institute for Leadership Development at the University of Georgia.

Athens Peer Court helps juvenile offenders avoid the court system with the expectation that they will not re-offend in the future; however, about 18-20% do re-offend, according to the data gathered by Boness.


“I think the ultimate goal of a program like this in many people’s eyes is reducing recidivism, hoping that peer court is a second chance that they don’t need another chance.”

— Emily Boness, director of Athens Peer Court


Most youth offenders seen by Athens Peer Court are charged with shoplifting or breaking daytime curfew, a curfew designed to keep youths in school. The most common misdemeanor to come before Athens Peer Court is shoplifting, according to data provided by Athens Peer Court.

Maya Cornish, a 16-year-old sophomore at Clarke Central High School, has been volunteering at Athens Peer Court for four years. She stated that “everyone has their reasons” for making mistakes.

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Shoplifting is the most common crime brought before the peer court since its creation in 2012. (Graphic/Caitlin Jett)

“I want to be there for them,” Cornish said. “I’m an older sister, and I inherently feel like I have to be there for everybody.”

Many officials claim that youth diversion programs, such as Athens Peer Court, increase the youth’s respect for the justice system and helps reduce recidivism rates, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

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Emily Boness, director, helps prepare students for the Athens Peer Court hearing inside the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse in downtown Athens, Georgia on Tuesday, March 26, 2019. Boness created Athens Peer Court, a youth diversion program, in March 2012, (Photo/Caitlin Jett)

Judge Robin Shearer, chief judge of the juvenile court in ACC, supports Athens Peer Court, even though she’s not actively involved in the weekly hearings.

Juvenile offenders who appear in front of a judge have a higher chance of a re-appearance in the future, Shearer said. Athens Peer Court reduces the chance that a juvenile offender will have a re-appearance in court.

Athens Peer Court is held every Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the ACC Courthouse.

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