Illustration by Wilder Schmaltz

RICARDO GONZALEZ, a Gresham high school senior, was telling a room full of high-ranking state officials Friday, November 5, how much he likes making his peers cry—in a good way. Gonzalez is a volunteer prosecutor in peer court, an interesting program that lets teens act as lawyers and jurors for other youths who plead guilty to small misdemeanors.

"I like it when they cry; it shows they care," said Gonzalez, eliciting a laugh and a knowing nod from the state's top prosecutor, Attorney General John Kroger.

Under Kroger's guidance, Oregon is looking for ways to proactively reduce its inmate population—and cut costs—by expanding prevention programs that keep young people on a path that doesn't lead to prison.

In about two dozen cities around the state (including Portland's suburbs, but not Portland), minors arrested for misdemeanors like petty theft, possession of alcohol, and possession of marijuana can either fight the charges in juvenile court or plead guilty and face a trial in front of their peers. The student jury hands down punishments that include community service, paying back stores for stolen merchandise, or writing essays about how marijuana affects the brain.

Peer court is funded entirely through a federal grant, but state officials convened last week's panel to learn more about whether the peer pressure deters future crime and could possibly be turned into a wider state program.

"Peer court has a long track record. It's a good community project—restorative justice as they say," says Mary Ellen Glynn, executive director of the Alcohol and Drug Policy Commission.

In 2007, state figures report that youth violence cost Oregon $464.7 million, including the $324 that it costs, on average, to try each juvenile delinquency case. The peer court system, with its unpaid volunteers, could cut court costs across the state.

Kroger is pushing the state to work more prevention programs into its criminal justice system. That drive stems partly from Kroger's personal experience: As he told the teens and state officials gathered to discuss peer court on Friday, he was a recovering alcoholic by age 15. "If I hadn't been able to turn my life around, I would have been a cost to society rather than whatever marginal benefit I have now," he said.

Substance abuse is clearly a major problem for Oregon teens—71 percent of the kids in Gresham's peer court are charged with possessing alcohol or marijuana—but the state general fund does not put a single dollar into substance abuse prevention programs. All money comes from federal funds and a tax on beer and wine sales.

But the big question is whether peer court and its community-based cures actually work at keeping kids out of jail in the long run. Oregon peer courts don't keep track of recidivism among its graduates, but a nationwide 2002 study by the Urban Institute showed mixed results. Peer courts cut the chance that youths would re-offend by 17 percent in Alaska, 21 percent in Missouri, and six percent in Arizona, but increased recidivism by four percent in Maryland.

Kroger noted that they need solid numbers for Oregon's peer courts before they could push the program statewide: "Voters are generally very skeptical of these programs, people tend to think the most effective response to crime is pure law enforcement."