Teens In Court: Stopping The Crime Epidemic

teensincourtTall, shaggy-haired Nick, age 15, glances once at the jury and then down at the courtroom railing in front of him. “I’m really sorry,” he says softly. “What I did was wrong, and I deserve punishment for it.”

The jurors watch him steadily, without expression. One twists her hair. Another tugs at a sneaker. Like Nick, they are all teenagers.

Welcome to the teen court of Fort Worth, Texas. On any other night, Nick might be playing freshman football, chasing a hockey puck, or hanging with friends. But here he sits, facing six teens he doesn’t know and answering tough questions from the prosecuting attorney (age 16) about how he and a friend came to be full of beer and climbing on the roof of a school after curfew one night. Nick is about to find out what it feels like to be judged by a jury of his peers.

People’s Court

All across the country, teens like Nick are discovering that Judge Judy has nothing on their generation. More than 940 teen courts (also called youth or peer courts) are in session in 48 states in the United States. In these courts, teens acting as attorneys and jurors (and, occasionally, judges) hold youthful offenders accountable for their actions. “It isn’t mock, it isn’t pretend–it’s real,” says Tracy Godwin Mullins, director of the National Youth Court Center, located in Lexington, Ky.

Youth courts are generally an option for kids ages 13 through 17 who have agreed to plead guilty or “no contest” to misdemeanor offenses such as theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and possession or consumption of alcohol or marijuana. Teen defendants voluntarily choose youth court as an alternative to the criminal justice system. After their cases are heard in teen court, defendants are given a constructive sentence (one that is designed to educate, rather than punish, an offender). Typically, teen defendants receive a mix of

* community service hours,

* mandatory jury duty in teen court,

* writing assignments on the hazards of drinking and drugs, and

* alcohol- or drug-awareness classes.

Once a teen has completed the sentence, his or her record is usually cleared.

According to Mullins, the youth court setting can be “extremely effective” with alcohol and drug cases. “Instead of having grown-ups talking to you about what you’ve done, you’re hearing from kids your own age, who are saying, ‘You know what, we’re out there faced with the same things, and we’re choosing a different path–and we think you should too!'” Mullins told Current Health.

How successful is the teen court approach? According to a recent evaluation of teen court programs by the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., only 6 percent to 9 percent of teen court defendants become repeat offenders in the months after their teen court dates. Some programs report even greater success: In California, the Placer County Peer Court (near Sacramento) found that fewer than 3 percent of the court’s 1,400 teen defendants have gone on to commit further crimes.

The Accused

On this night in Fort Worth, Nick’s case is one of four involving alcohol or marijuana. When Nick’s case is called, the prosecuting attorney is quick to confront him. “Your friend fell off the roof,” says Chris, the teen attorney. “This was a dangerous situation. Why did you drink the beer?” he asks Nick.

“Just to try it–no really good reason,” Nick replies. The beer was “the wrong decision at the wrong time…. It wasn’t worth it,” Nick admits.

Nick’s comments come as no surprise to the judge presiding over his case. Judge Jay Printz is a licensed adult attorney who volunteers his time with teen court. Printz says he believes teens learn more when they take charge of their own problems. “Here, it isn’t just Morn or Dad paying a fine. They have to fix it. They have to make it right.”

Crime and Punishment

For Nick, making it right began at home with Mom and Dad. “I’ve been doing a lot of hauling and lifting for them in the backyard,” he tells the jury. “And they know I love talking to my friends on the Internet, so I’ve been banned from that for a few weeks.”

Now Nick must make things right with his community and peers. The jury sentences Nick to 48 hours of community service over 90 days. He’ll serve four nights as a youth court juror, write a paper, and attend a three-night class on the risks of alcohol. Some youth courts around the country do drug or alcohol assessments, offer counseling, or assign peer mentors to keep in touch with former defendants.

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