School Climate & Safety

Court Programs Granting Teenagers Jury of Their Peers

By Adrienne D. Coles — December 15, 1999 7 min read
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On trial for shoplifting, the 16-year-old defendant stands as a jury of her peers files into the courtroom. At her side is a first-time defense lawyer, also 16. The prosecutor, once on the hot seat herself as a defendant, has asked for the maximum sentence.

The defendant listens to the judge hand down her sentence: For shoplifting two rings from a Durham department store—a misdemeanor larceny—the 10th grader will have to perform 15 hours of community service, attend two teen-court workshops and one for shoplifting, and write a letter of apology to the retailer and her mother. As a participant in the Durham County Teen Court and Restitution Program, she will also get something else—a second chance. Her crime will be expunged if she fulfills the sentencing requirements.

The teen- court program here is part of a national movement that has expanded rapidly during the decade, from an estimated 50 such programs in 1991 to more than 600 this year, according to the U.S. Department of Justice’s office of juvenile justice and delinquency prevention. Programs are running in 45 states and the District of Columbia.

So keen is the interest in teen courts that the federal agency this fall opened the National Youth Court Center at the American Probation and Parole Association in Lexington, Ky. The center will provide training and technical assistance to existing programs and to people who want to establish them. It will also serve as a clearinghouse for such programs.

“Youths play a role in sending a message to peers who go astray,’' said Shay Bilchik, the administrator of the juvenile- justice office. “The message is so much stronger coming from them than from authority figures or adults.”

The teen-court program in Durham, which is part of North Carolina’s Research Triangle Park, began in 1994 at the prompting of Marcia Morey, then an assistant district attorney here. It was created as an alternative system of justice for middle and high school students who were first-time misdemeanor offenders.

“Programs like this educate and get accountability [from students] but don’t brand them with a criminal record for the rest of their lives,” Ms. Morey said. Now a state district court judge, she ran the program for three years before going to work for Gov. James B. Hunt Jr., helping to rewrite the state’s juvenile-justice laws. Still a volunteer judge in the teen court, she meted out the shoplifter’s sentence.

Like Traditional Court

Nationwide, teen courts share many of the same fundamental principles, though models vary. They are administered by a variety of entities, including juvenile courts, probation agencies, law-enforcement agencies, schools, and private, nonprofit agencies. Operated like traditional courts in most respects, they have one significant difference. Teenagers serve as jurors, lawyers, bailiffs, and sometimes judges.

If the offender successfully complies with the program, the charges are dismissed; if not, the case may be referred for formal prosecution.

Many observers say teen-court programs tend to ease the burden of the juvenile-court system in more ways than one.

“It’s very cost-effective for the court system,” said Jane Volland, the Durham County Teen Court coordinator. “We do take out some of the less serious cases, and let [the regular courts] concentrate on the more serious crimes.”

A survey by the Urban Institute, a Washington-based think tank, found that teen courts handled 65,000 cases in 1998.

As in Durham, most courts adjudicate first-time offenders charged with such offenses as theft, misdemeanor assault, disorderly conduct, truancy, and possession of drugs or alcohol.

The Durham court also takes students charged with committing crimes and school policy infractions on campus. A majority of the court’s 159 cases so far this school year were referred by law-enforcement officers, including officers who work in schools.

Most teen courts do not determine guilt or innocence. Instead, teenagers must admit to the charges brought against them in order to participate.

Those who go through the program in Durham can expect a punishment of up to 40 hours in teen court and up to 200 hours in community service, depending on the severity of the offense.

Youth offenders here can complete their service with one of 38 agencies and organizations, including the parks and recreation department, the Durham County sheriff’s office, and Habitat for Humanity, a nonprofit group that builds houses for the poor.

Positive Peer Pressure

The Durham County program has expanded under the guidance of Ms. Volland. When she took over in 1996, she had an administrative assistant. Today, there are two divisions—court and restitution—and a staff of six.

“I earn half what I used to, but I love what I do because it works,” said the former criminal-defense lawyer who handled juvenile cases.

The average annual budget of a program is about $33,000. Funding comes mostly from state juvenile-justice programs, local government, business, school districts, or federal grants.

Durham’s court has a $190,000 budget, most of which comes from the state office of juvenile justice, the county, and local businesses.

The court meets every Thursday night and hears at least three cases. Ms. Volland estimates 125 to 150 volunteers participate each year, including law students from nearby Duke University and North Carolina Central University. The law students work side by side with the volunteer teenage “lawyers,” advising them as they present their cases.

Natasha Johnson, 18, volunteered with the program for six years. After graduating from Southern High School this past spring, she is taking a year off before she heads to college to pursue her career goal of becoming a criminal lawyer. Teen court, she said, is a positive form of peer pressure.

“Knowing the consequences of certain actions have helped me. ... I don’t want the embarrassment,” she said. “Most students take it as a joke,” she acknowledged, “but once they begin, they realize they will get community service, teen-court sentences, [and] their attitude changes.”

When her truancy landed her in teen court three years ago, Cassey Bailey, who was 12 at the time, said she was scared. “I didn’t really know what would happen, but my attitude was, like, I don’t need this.”

She was given community service but declined an invitation to continue working with the teen court at the end of her sentence. Encouragement from her mother led her back, though. Over time, she immersed herself slowly in the program, participating on juries and eventually getting up the courage to act as a lawyer.

“I didn’t do a good job the first time, but I got better,” said the 15-year-old, who feels her teen-court experience has helped her mature.

Evaluation of Recidivism

Those who follow teen-court programs say the benefits are twofold: They compel accountability and offer an educational component to the youth volunteers. Preventing repeat offenses is also a goal, but there has been no national evaluation on recidivism for teen-court programs. The federal juvenile-justice office has enlisted the help of the Urban Institute to evaluate the effectiveness of teen courts. Results are expected next year. The Durham Teen Court program is also examining its effect on recidivism.

Recidivism rates and measurement methods vary considerably, but most programs speak of positive results, said Tracy Godwin, the teen-court research associate for the American Probation and Parole Association.

A study this year focusing on sentence completion and recidivism in the Kentucky teen-court program found a recidivism rate of 31 percent after one year, while a 1991 study of a program in Arlington, Texas, found that 25 percent of those who went through teen court got in trouble with the law again within two years.

The programs’ disadvantages appear to be few, though some people are concerned that adolescents cannot handle the responsibility that teen court asks of them. But those critics don’t give the youngsters credit, Ms. Godwin said.

“Of course, some teenagers have problems that teen court can’t reach,” Ms. Volland said. But, she added, “no program can be the be-all and end-all.”

Teen-court programs tend to make youths look squarely at their misdeeds, Ms. Morey argued. In juvenile court, defendants don’t have to take the stand, she noted. In contrast, Durham teen-court defendants are required to take the stand and account for their actions. “The responsibilities that kids feel in teen court are much more than they would feel in the real court system,” Ms. Morey said.

“It’s important for kids to realize that they made a dumb mistake and get a break,” she said, “because our court system doesn’t give breaks.”

The realization that he made a poor decision hit home for an 18-year-old charged with possessing a weapon at school. He hadn’t intended to harm anyone, he told the teen-court judge and jury here; he just didn’t think about the knife in his shirt pocket.

When asked by the jury why he would do such a thing, the defendant answered: “If I had a chance to do it over, I would have left the knife in my car.”

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A version of this article appeared in the December 15, 1999 edition of Education Week as Court Programs Granting Teenagers Jury of Their Peers


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