Judge Raima Ballinger last week opened a proceeding that happens hundreds of times a year in Sonoma County juvenile court and is usually kept hidden from the public eye — deciding what to do with teenagers in trouble with the law.
The rare glimpse, which came in the case of a Cloverdale High School student who fatally injured an elderly pedestrian in a hit-and-run crash, revealed stark differences between the treatment of kids 12 to 17 and their adult counterparts.
The fast-moving proceedings are less formal. Young people are called by first names and Ballinger consults with family members seated nearby to arrive at dispositions that focus on rehabilitation rather than incarceration.
The courtroom, where Ballinger has a white lily sitting in a vase on her desk, is located next to the Los Guilicos Juvenile Justice Center at the gateway to Sonoma Valley vineyards, miles from the main court and jail complex.
The juvenile court, in effect, is the stop that will determine whether a troubled teen returns to parents and school or heads off to the cinder-block walls of juvenile hall, and even tougher state-run detention centers.
This was the challenge before Ballinger, parents, defense and prosecution attorneys and probation officials at last week's sentencing hearing.
"This is much different than what happens in adult court," Ballinger told those gathered to hear the manslaughter case against Mitch Carlson, 17. "We look at every person individually."
But the quick, initial settlement of Carlson's case raised questions about the speed with which about 1,500 county cases are resolved each year. The confidentiality of the proceedings — only relatives are allowed inside the courtroom — fosters concern that no one in the public is present to ensure justice is done.
In the week after Christmas, Carlson was arrested for fleeing the scene as the severely injured Sanchez lay on a Cloverdale street, and appeared before Ballinger for resolution of the case — the day before Sanchez died.
After an outcry from Sanchez's family and community members over the handling of the case behind closed doors, District Attorney Jill Ravitch called for an independent prosecutor.
Proponents of more openness say juvenile cases often are shrouded in too much secrecy.
Barring the public from all but the most serious juvenile cases can hide police and prosecutorial abuse, judicial error and unfair treatment of defendants, said Peter Scheer, executive director of San Rafael-based First Amendment Coalition.
He questioned whether minors are too young to be held criminally responsible and the practice of shielding their mistakes from an unforgiving public to speed their rehabilitation.
"Exclusion of the press and public prevents needed scrutiny of a part of the judicial system that is badly broken," Scheer said.
As the system has developed over the past decade, statistics point to an even greater burden on the judgments made in juvenile court.
Sonoma County's juvenile hall averages 80 to 90 inmates daily, significantly less than its 140-bed capacity. And the county has about a dozen kids in the state's juvenile detention facilities, considered to be the last resort for the most incorrigible.
"We don't have a lot of young people there," said Steve Pettit, a public defender assigned to the Juvenile Justice Center since 2000. "That's a really good thing. Sonoma County should be proud of that. Incarceration doesn't happen lightly here."