Friday, October 17, 2008

Pleading to a Jury of Your Peers

The defendant makes her way to the bench, a petulant look on her face. The judge swears her in, then turns the proceedings over to the council for the state. He gets to his feet and addresses the jury with some simple words about paying attention to the facts and rendering a fair verdict. Then it’s the defense’s turn.

It’s a scene that’s played out in thousands of courtrooms across the United States every day. The American Judicial System in action. The verbal jousting of opposing council. A jury of one’s peers. But on this night in Frisco, Texas, one significant thing is different.

Only a handful of people in the courtroom are over the age of 18.

This is Teen Court. But make no mistake, this is still a court, with the full weight of the Collin County Court system and legal code behind it. Defendants are represented by council. They’re prosecuted by “district attorneys” and the cases are heard by an impartial jury. Participants are youths between 13 and 18 years old from Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Plano and other parts of Collin County. There’s a dress code for everyone involved. If a defendant shows up in a tee shirt, they’re likely to be sent home to change into more appropriate garb. After all, according to the information sheet shared with all defendants, “The business of the court is not casual. Your attire should not be either.”

Unlike regular courts, in Teen Court they’re not concerned with determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence. That’s because they’ve already entered a plea of “Guilty” or “No Contest” in a Municipal or Justice of the Peace courtroom, and a sentence has been handed down. Teen Court merely gives them the opportunity to plead their case in front of a jury that really is made up of their peers. Some of the participants in Teen Court were once defendants themselves, since one of the punishments the jury can hand down is that defendants must serve on a future Teen Court jury.

And that’s the attraction of Teen Court. Many teens feel that adults just don’t “get it.” Ignoring for a moment the fact that all we thirty- and forty-somethings were once teens ourselves, it’s true that we’ve probably changed a bit since then. When a sentence is passed by another group of teens, many of whom have sat on the other side of the room, it’s hard to argue that they don’t feel some empathy.

So the courts will set aside the judgment of the adults and let the youths decide. As with other courts, juries have their guidelines. Depending on the severity of the offense, they can assign a range of community service, from 4 to 48 hours. Along with one or more stints on upcoming juries, the defendant is always assigned a 500-word essay on their experience with Teen Court. Beyond that, juries can get creative. Does the offense involve fighting? Send ‘em to anger management counseling. Vandalism? Make ‘em scrub some walls. Pretty much anything within reason is fair game.

Naturally, the Teen Court is overseen by a group of adults. The judge is often a volunteer judge or lawyer working in the area. Several others offer their time to coordinate the cases, get signatures and act as the bailiff. Running the entire program is Shirlane Grant, a professional appointed by the Colin County Court system. “Teen Court is an ideal program designed for young people, giving them the opportunity to get involved and learn about county government and the judicial system,” commented Ms. Grant. “This is where you will find ‘real teens delivering real justice for real crimes.’ Teen Court is also designed as a first offender program and this works both ways, it helps to prevent teen offenders from being repeat offenders and it also diverts young people from becoming first offenders.”

In a time where stories of moly-coddled kids are plentiful, it’s refreshing to see some of them taking a direct role in the system. Granted, many of them are there fulfilling their own sentences. But many more volunteer as part of their civic responsibility. One such volunteer, Ms. Bailey McNary, an eighth grader at Frisco’s Wester Middle School, had this to say about her experience with Teen Court: “I thought it was really cool that kids were deciding the punishment for kids. I was surprised by how much time we actually took to decide each case.” As a result of her experience, Ms. McNary is now considering pursuing a career in law when she moves on to high school and beyond.

Many would claim that the last thing this world needs is more lawyers. But take a look at the people who make Teen Court work and you’ll see that not all legal eagles are turkeys.

To find out more about Teen Court, including how to volunteer, visit their website at

Friday, October 3, 2008

Nice Work, if You Can Get It

I have a business opportunity for you. Wait, wait. Don’t turn the page. This isn’t Amway, Pampered Chef, Southern Living at Home or any of the dozens of network marketing programs out there. (Oh wait. Maybe it is. More on that in a bit.)

No, this is a regular business, with a couple of interesting twists. First of all, you don’t have to produce anything. Somebody else does that for you. Nor do you have to deliver a product. They’ve got people lined up to do that as well. There’s no inventory to stock. And you won’t ever run into a problem with a lack of demand. All you have to do is market this product to people and take their money. Pretty much basic, good-old-fashioned American business.

But wait, as the saying goes, there’s more. Once you sign up customers, you get to set the price for the product AFTER they consume it. That’s right… they gobble up your goods and you get to send them a bill every month with a fee that can go up or down without any notice. What controls the fee? That’s the beautiful part. Nobody really knows. There are several sources for your product, so if any of them raise their rates, you can raise yours, regardless of whether you’re actually buying much from that supplier.

Sounds like quite the racket, huh? You’d think there’d be some government agency that oversees this business and keeps them in line, wouldn’t you? And you’d be right. There is an entity that was created pretty much exclusively to monitor this business. But, since 2002, they’ve been relegated to the sidelines as a spectator.

I am, of course, talking about the power business here in the Great State of Texas. Since the legislature passed Senate Bill 7 six years ago, the electricity business has been “deregulated.” That means anybody can jump into the market as a Retail Electricity Provider, or REP. There are only a handful of companies generating power. And an even smaller number that actually deliver electricity to the TV, microwave, iMac and other life-sustaining devices in your home. But there are dozens of REPs in Texas. At last count, twenty-seven are offering their services to the residents of Frisco.

And therein lies the crux of the issue. Just what “services” do these REPs provide in return for their fees? So far, the only service I’ve seen from my provider is sending me bills with ever-increasing rates. Back in 2002, my wife and I decided that we wanted to be “environmentally conscious” (aka suburban guilt complex), so we signed up for one of the “green” providers when they entered the market. We took it at their word that the energy we were using was being generated by “clean” sources. Of course, since they were buying energy on the open market, there was really no way to be sure. But as far as services, the only thing I got from them was an incredibly confusing “even payment” plan that had me cutting hefty checks year-round, rather than gargantuan ones in July and August.

Then, last year, a good friend approached me with a “new business opportunity.” Yep, those buzzwords had me running for the closet. But it turned out I didn’t have to hold home “electro-parties” to enjoy the low, low rates. So I switched. Nine months later, I’m having second thoughts. (Good thing I didn’t do something silly like signing a two-year contract.) Again, I’ve received no particular “service” from my new provider. What I did get was a rate that went up almost 80% in 7 months. I’d had enough, though, when I saw that their current advertised rate was 40% lower than the one they’d charged me.

Now they had a chance to provide some service. I put a high premium on customer service. Any organization with whom I choose to do business is held to a high standard, particularly those whose only REAL product is their service. Unfortunately, when I phoned their help line, nobody could adequately explain why (1) my rate went up with no notice or (2) new customers would be paying less than me. A few more calls, and some pushing by my “energy consultant” (the friend who sold me on this system) and I’m told I’ll receive a credit on my next bill.

I’m told I could have avoided those price increases if I had “locked in” a rate, by signing a long-term agreement. That is true. But before I lock myself into a relationship with a company, I like to find out how they treat me should things go wrong. In this case, the jury is still out.

So, I’m going to hit the Public Utility Commission’s web site ( and start scoping out some other options. Clearly, the electric business is no spectator sport. You have to get engaged. Keep an eye on energy prices. Sign up for long term contracts when the market is right, or switch providers if the situation warrants. With a little effort - and energy - you should be able to stay ahead of the game. And that is good business.