Teen Court programs were established to prevent and reduce the occurrence of juvenile delinquent activity. Teen courts are judicial diversion programs that use positive peer pressure and other appropriate sanctions to show the youthful offender the consequences of violating the law and the positive side of behaving in a more constructive manner.
TEEN COURT, as a concept and program, was first started in Odessa, Texas, in the mid 1980’s, and has operated successfully in the inter-veining years. In 1988, Judge Paul Logan of Sarasota, Florida, became seriously interested in the program as an alternative to the more formal Juvenile Court, and flew to Odessa to investigate the TEEN COURT program in action. Shortly thereafter, the Sarasota TEEN COURT program, which was modeled after the original in Odessa, began. Since then, the program has been replicated with a few minor changes in various counties in Florida as well as in other states.
WHY A TEEN COURT?
The purpose of TEEN COURT is to direct minor cases away from the formal juvenile court. The TEEN COURT process provides; a) a forum for defendants to explain their involvement in the offense; b) a structured environment in which the words and actions of defendants are evaluated and judged by a jury of peers; c) the opportunity for defendants to accept responsibility for their actions by fulfilling the jury’s sentence of community service hours and future jury duty assignments, both of which are designed to be constructive and rehabilitative.
TEEN COURT is based upon the premise that youthful offenders will more readily accept responsibility for their actions when judged and sentenced by their peers. The juries in TEEN COURT cases are made up of trained middle and high school volunteers along with a few defendants who have previously been required to serve jury duty as part of their sentence. In contrast of other courts, TEEN COURT mandates that all part of their sentence. In contrast to other courts, TEEN COURT mandates that all defendants serve as jurors at future TEEN COURT cases, thereby offering the young offenders a unique opportunity for rehabilitation. Also, TEEN COURT juries always recommend participation in a community service project as part of the sentence. Community service is a common construction sanction recognized by our whole justice system as a legitimate method for defendants to repay their debt to society. The jury may also recommend one or two of a variety of other sanctions, which are directly related to the individual case before them.
TEEN COURT is based on individualized sanctions, community service projects and the defendant’s active participation throughout the whole process. Figuratively speaking, TEEN COURT exists as a structure of accountability for first time juvenile offenders into which they enter the “Accountability Building” at ground level as defendants, then move, step by step, from one level to the next, until they finally reach the rooftop as experienced jurors. From the moment the juvenile has signed the agreement to participate as a defendant with the TEEN COURT Program, all of the contacts, phone calls, appointments and arrangements for community service work or jury duty, must be made by the defendant and no other person. This is an extremely important concept, and emphasis in this area strongly supports the TEEN COURT philosophy of personally accepting responsibility for one’s actions. We believe that those who make the climb to the top of the “Accountability Building” experience a change of attitude. Their view of accepting responsibility for their actions is different from the one they held at the time they entered the building on the ground floor as defendants. Ideally, these young people come to understand that living within the law or violating it, getting a good education or not even graduating, having a successful future or failing to find suitable employment, all depends upon the decisions that they alone make. At least from the rooftop, their view is clearer, broader, and more toward the horizon…their future.
In all procedures, common courtroom decorum is expected. Even though participation in TEEN COURT is totally voluntary, not every youth who applies, nor every juvenile who is arrested, is automatically eligible to participate in this unique program. Therefore, it is regarded as a privilege to be selected either as a volunteer or as a defendant for participation in the TEEN COURT program. Flagrant disregard of the principles of TEEN COURT will result in the privilege of participation being rescinded.
Confidentiality, objectivity, respect for the rights of others, making a positive contribution to society, living within the law, acting responsibly, and understanding the justice system, are all fundamental TEEN COURT principles. These same principles also serve as the very foundation of the relationships and interactions between the various players during the court proceedings. Therefore, for those who participate as volunteers on a regular basis, TEEN COURT offers the following: feelings of deep satisfaction that come from doing something meaningful with one’s time and talents; overall self-confidence; enhancement of personal pride by being successful while assuming a courtroom role; opportunities for learning how to accept responsibility for one’s own actions; team building practice; advanced negotiation skills;’ strong consensus building behavior; a forum for self expression; promotion of civic responsibility through understanding the justice system; and association with a positive peer group. TEEN COURT represents a unique and innovative mechanism for young people to demonstrate to society their capacity for self-government and responsible citizenship.
To these ends, TEEN COURT not only offers and effective diversion away from the juvenile justice system for first time offenders, but it also provides an agenda for self-improvement and an educational experience through which our youth can come to understand our system of justice.
THE WAY TEEN COURT WORKS
TEEN COURT is designed to expedite the cases of first time misdemeanor offenders. This category of offense might include such charges as: shoplifting, vandalism/criminal mischief, possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, trespassing, interference in a school function, or petit theft. These are real cases where an arrest has been made, and the charges have progressed through the normal channels from the Juvenile Clerks Office to the State Attorney’s Office. There they are screened for any prior arrest history and when appropriate, referred to TEEN COURT.
When a case has been deemed appropriate for TEEN COURT, the defendant and his family are invited in for a conference with the TEEN COURT coordinator to determine if they are willing to voluntarily participate in the program. An Agreement to Participate is signed.
All defendants must admit guilt in order to participate. When they are called to the stand to testify, they are sworn in by the Judge to tell the whole truth when giving their story. Their parents must be in attendance at the TEEN COURT hearing.
The defendant has a “teen-defense attorney” assigned to his case who will do his best to bring out any and all mitigating circumstances in an effort to sway the jury to reduce the penalties the jury is required to impose. There is also a “teen-prosecuting attorney” who is trying to bring forward all the reasons why a stronger penalty should be imposed by the jury.
The jury, which is made up of trained middle and high school volunteers and previously sentenced defendants, does not decide guilt or innocence. They listen to both of the attorneys argue for and against the defendant’s explanation of his/her defense attorney, the jury retires to the deliberation room. The duty of the jury is to talk complete agreement among themselves about the number of “jury duties” and community service hours” the defendant must serve for being involved in the particular offense, as well as the assignment of other appropriate sanctions. Their decision is written down and handed to the Judge who reconvenes the Court, calls the defendant approve the sentence and the defendant and his parents sign a “Contract/Agreement” to carry out the sanctions imposed.
If the defendant accepts and completes the sanctions within the prescribed time, the State Attorney’s Office is notified of that, and usually no further action is taken and the case is dismissed. The final disposition of all juvenile cases remains at the discretion of the State Attorney.