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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."

Juvenile delinquency filings in the county have declined 39percent over the past decade, reflecting a nationwide crime-rate reduction.

Prosecutors filed 1,310 juvenile petitions, or complaints, in fiscal 2008-09, down about 16percent from the previous year, according to the latest available court statistics.

During the same period, the court's two judges — Ballinger and Judge Allan Hardcastle — resolved 1,633 cases, about 10percent fewer than the year before.

The system actually sees many more kids, Ballinger told those attending Carlson's hearing Wednesday, which was opened with the filing of the manslaughter charge.

About 2,900 are contacted by police, according to Probation Department officials, but about 60 percent of the cases are diverted to alternative programs, Ballinger said.

Unlike the adult system, incoming police reports are first reviewed by probation officials who decide whether to send the young suspect to the district attorney to face charges.

And the process is accelerated. Young offenders must be released within 48 hours unless a petition is filed, and if it is a felony, a detention hearing must be held no later than a day after.

Any violation of the timeline could lead to mandatory release.

Teenagers may admit or deny a charge at arraignment. If they deny it and are detained, they have a right to a trial within 15 days.

Probation officials say the average processing time from charging to disposition is 16 days.

Criminal charges in adult court, on the other hand, can take years to resolve.

In Carlson's case, the district attorney brought charges within two days of the Dec. 27 accident and the boy was released to his parents with an electronic monitoring device strapped to his ankle, Ballinger said.

He returned to court Dec. 30 and admitted to the lone count of felony hit-and-run causing great bodily injury. There was no plea bargain with prosecutors, Ballinger said.

"Everything listed on that petition," Ballinger recounted, "Mitchell said, &‘I did that.'"

However, relatives of victim Miguel Sanchez, 83, said prosecutors never checked on Sanchez's condition before charging Carlson. He died Dec.31, a day after the case was resolved.

Weeks later, following the independent review by a Marin County prosecutor, Carlson was charged with an additional misdemeanor count of vehicular manslaughter.

He admitted the charge and was sentenced Wednesday to up to three years' probation, community service and other sanctions including the loss of driving privileges.

"I hope someday you can forgive me," Carlson told the court.

Sanchez family members were unsatisfied. A grandson called Carlson a coward for leaving the elderly man on the street and urged the judge to put him in custody.

But Ballinger said under the law, incarceration wasn't an option. If Carlson completes probation, which may include a special restorative resources program, he will have his record wiped clean.

"I have heard what you have said. But I have to follow the law," Ballinger said. "That's what I'm going to do."

The added charge is what compelled Ballinger to open the proceedings. The state's Welfare and Institutions code lists serious offenses such as murder, arson, rape and robbery for which hearings must be accessible to the public.

Bill Brockley, chief deputy district attorney, said the Legislature and reviewing courts have supported the statutes governing juvenile proceedings to avoid placing the "stigma of criminality on the minor" while serving the "best interests of the state."

Legal advocates for youth said the Carlson case likely played out the way it was supposed to.

Pettit said young people are treated differently than adults because they aren't yet fully developed, mentally or emotionally. Science has shown many don't grasp simple cause and effect until their early 20s, while others are coping with learning disabilities or problems at home, he said.

Juvenile law was written to be less punitive, concentrating instead on helping kids become productive adults and expunging criminal records.

"They used to hang kids just like they did adults," Pettit said. "But they got to thinking that might not be the best way to do things."

Pettit said there is a system of checks and balances that allows either side to appeal decisions. Some cases are reviewed by the grand jury.

"It's the most effective branch of the judicial system," Pettit said. "There's generally more agreement between professionals to an outcome and less animosity. It's a pretty unusual person who doesn't try to help kids."

Sheralynn Freitas, deputy chief probation officer, believes the system is on the right track.

"While we continue to develop and evolve with new research in juvenile justice, the system's foundation is quite solid," Freitas said.

However, Scheer questioned the idea that minors are too young to be responsible for their actions and should be protected to help them recover.

"That quaint notion no longer seems very relevant," Scheer said, especially in those cases in which the most violent juveniles are sent to extended stays in juvenile hall and onto state custody. "The reality today is that juvenile rehabilitation is the rare exception. Continued secrecy therefore produces few, if any, benefits."

You can reach Staff Writer Paul Payne at 568-5312 or paul.payne@pressdemocrat.com