Saturday, May 26, 2012 | 2 a.m.
Justice seems to pump through the veins of Alexis Brown, a Las Vegas native who has been “practicing” law since she was 13.
Brown, 29, is a lawyer with the Fennemore Craig legal firm and traces her love of the law to her childhood. Among her youthful experiences, Brown was involved with Clark County’s Trial By Peers, a program established in 1993 that enables middle and high school students to represent and prosecute teens accused of petty crimes, such as shoplifting or truancy.
These days, in addition to her work, Brown volunteers as a senior peer counselor in the program, helping teens defend and prosecute other teens facing first-time, non-violent misdemeanors in the program.
“I decided when I was 8 years old I wanted to become a lawyer,” said Brown, who recently received her license to practice law in Nevada.
Growing up with parents involved in law and law enforcement, Brown’s love of the legal profession was in her blood.
“It was something I would aspire to be,” she said. “I really wanted to help people.”
Part of those aspirations led her to Trial By Peers.
In Clark County, teens charged with a crime have a choice whether to be tried through the juvenile system or Trial By Peers. In the peer program, defendants still stand before a real judge. If they are found guilty by a jury of their teenage peers or plead guilty, they are sentenced to community service hours. The sentence depends on the severity of the crime and the jury’s recommendation to the judge.
Teens acting as peer counselors learn from an attorney mentor and receive the real-life experience of being in a courtroom. Many of the trials take place throughout the year at the Family Courts and Services Center.
Among the lessons, teens acquire an understanding of the legal system and often overcome fears of public speaking.
“I was 13 and scared out of my wits,” Brown said of speaking in front of a courtroom in her younger days.
Now Brown is able to coach students to be confident in presenting cases to the jury.
Alex Dombrowski, 17 and a junior at Veterans Tribute Career and Technical Academy, has been a peer counselor in the program for the past three years. In a room full of jury members dressed in street clothes, Dombrowski stands out with his spikey blond hair that’s as sharp as his black suit.
“It was my mom that got me involved,” Dombrowski said. “She forced me. (I’m) so glad she did.”
Dombrowski isn’t sure if he’ll become a lawyer like Brown, but he does enjoy winning cases.
“You have to dedicate yourself to the case,” said Dombrowski, who likes representing defendants.
Witnessing his client's and the client’s parents’ reaction after a “not guilty” verdict is reached is one highlight of the program for Dombrowski.
“The mom’s face lights up; the defendant’s face lights up,” he said. “It’s a happy moment in the courtroom.”
The program costs about $33,000 annually, but it frees up more than 600 cases from the regular juvenile court system.
“It saves the taxpayers a ton of money,” said Mary Chapman, an attorney and a member of the Clark County Law Foundation board, which oversees the program.
Chapman said Trial By Peers is unique because it gives defendants pleading “not guilty” an opportunity to be represented and tried by peers, whereas similar programs across the country will not take on those cases.
The program lowers the potential for those teens on trial to commit another crime, she said.
“I hope (teens on trial) can see they don’t have to lead a life of crime,” Brown added.
The Nevada Supreme Court has approved the program, and a licensed attorney assists in each case.
“We have to provide due process,” Chapman said.
The peer juries, Chapman said, tend to be more judgmental of the teens standing trial.
“They just see through the BS; they see through the garbage” when it comes to crimes such as defacing property, truancy and minor drug possession, Chapman said.
Trial By Peers “gets the kids to see the consequences of their actions,” she said. “(It) gets the parents involved.”
The success of the nearly 20-year-old program is heralded almost universally by those involved.
“The transformation is just amazing,” said Chapman, adding that she knows of at least three attorneys in the valley who have gone through the program.
“We’ve had a couple of defendants who have applied for the program,” she said. “It’s fun to see that kind of stuff. You give theses kids a chance.”
To learn more about the program or for teens to sign up, visit the program’s website.