Published: Apr 10, 2011 9:11 PM EDT
Updated: Apr 10, 2011 6:12 PM EDT

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. (AP) - They admit guilt before ever stepping into this court.
 
And while a second chance awaits young people who do, it's not something that comes comfortably.
 
Instead of judging by an adult in a black robe, peers mete out consequences to defendants in Duval County's Teen Court. If teens stick to sentences, the crimes come off their records. Sentences for the mostly first-time misdemeanor offenders often include community service, essays, jail tours, counseling, service as a program juror, and public apologies to parents.
 
"You hope that one in however many kids will learn something and straighten up," said Heather Solanka, a civil litigation lawyer who volunteers as a Teen Court judge. "The goal is that they go, 'This is not the path for me.'"
 
Teen Court started in Jacksonville in 1998. Program director Lawrence Hills Jr. said he believes the program - one of about 50 in Florida - provides a lesson in civics that schools don't teach.
 
He said administrators usually pick teens who commit crimes at school for the diversion program funded by a fee adult offenders pay. While petty theft was once the most popular offense, now 60 percent of cases involve marijuana possession. In the last five years, about 1,800 defendants have been part of the program. There are 18 teens who volunteer as peer lawyers, plus some who serve as jurors and bailiffs.
 
In a recent Monday night court session, a 17-year-old Englewood High School junior was up first before Solanka. Police busted the honor student after she skipped out of school with cigarettes and marijuana. She got on the witness stand to answer questions as a 15-year-old prosecutor and an 18-year-old defense attorney put on their cases.
 
"She had the opportunity to say no, but she didn't and she went along with her friends," said Aaron Zeiler, a Stanton High sophomore. "She had the opportunity to stop, but she kept running away."
 
"My defendant is very sorry for what she has done. She told the police officer the truth," said Devin Clark, an Arlington Country Day School senior. "... Please return with a fair and just sentence."
 
Before the jury deliberated, the girl's father stood to say how broken-hearted he was. After six teen jurors decided the defendant's punishment, it was time for her to face her father for a public mea culpa. She wiped her eyes, holding her head in her hands before standing up.
 
"Hi Dad," she started, fidgeting with a jacket that sagged off one shoulder. "I just want to say how sorry I am. ..."
 
Not every teen is so contrite. Not every parent seems to understand his or her child could be facing adjudication in a court that isn't set up to be a learning experience.
 
Later that night, the mother of a 16-year-old caught with marijuana at Mandarin High confronted Teen Court officials about her son's sentence. It included 15 hours of community service, four jury duty assignments, a 7 p.m. curfew, a jail tour, a three-page essay on the effects of marijuana, a two-page report on decision-making skills, and a court-ordered visit to a homeless shelter to talk to three people about how they got there.
 
"This is everything on the books. I'm a single mom and I work," the mother said. "... He knows what he's done ... This is too much. I can't do this. I'm going to end up losing my job."
 
Solanka never had seen any parent react that way. Jurors were wide-eyed. From the gallery, Hills stood to address the mother.
 
"The alternative is arrest ... I appreciate what you just said," he told her, "... but if he were to exercise the other options, likely he wouldn't have a choice."
 
Soon it was time for the 16-year-old to give his court-ordered apology.
 
"I want to say I'm sorry ... You could lose your job," he told his mother. "I know it's crazy and ... I'm just sorry and I'll try to straighten up."
 
Later that night, the woman shook Hills' hand on the way out of the courthouse. Next to her was a young man whose eyes were red from crying.