Click here to read "Custom-designed teen court programs", an online extra to complement "A jury of their peers"!
When 15-year-old Lucy decided to stash a small amount of marijuana in her bedroom, she got more than a few surprises.
She didn't expect her mother to find it. Nor did she anticipate her parents turning her in to the police. She certainly didn't foresee being arrested at home and charged with possessing a controlled substance.
But the biggest surprise came when she learned that if she participated in the local teen court and fulfilled her sentence there, she could avoid paying the fine and clear her juvenile and school records.
"I couldn't say no to that," she recalls.
However, what she first viewed as an easy way to weasel out of trouble turned out to be a valuable lesson in how her actions affected her family and community. A jury of her peers sentenced her to 15 hours of community service, three jury terms, an eight-week AODA class, and required her to write apologies to her parents and siblings, all of which had to be finished within 12 weeks to successfully complete the program.
"It was a lot of work," she says, recalling that she missed social activities, sports events and practice and more to fulfill her obligations to the court.
But she says she learned a lot along the way, especially through community service and jury terms. She discovered her actions affected more than just herself and learned she liked being noticed for positive things — like tutoring elementary students at the school district's after-school program — far more.
Today Lucy mentors at-risk youth, pulls good grades, plays sports and her marijuana use is but a distant memory. "I don't want to get in trouble again," she says.
Mary, Lucy's mother, maintains the teen court experience positively impacted her daughter, who she says has become far more responsible. "I'm not naive enough to think she'll never do anything wrong again — she is a teen after all — but being in the program taught her a lesson she won't soon forget."
This is exactly what's meant to happen when teens enter a youth court program, which is designed to address youth who've committed a crime, delinquent-status offense or exhibit other problem behaviors, according to Tracy Mullins, senior research associate with the American Probation and Parole Association. She maintains youth courts hold teens accountable while arming them with important life skills in public speaking, problem solving and critical thinking.
Communities base such programs on the premise that as young people receive their first taste of independence, they often make mistakes. "We all did things at ages 14 or 15 that we are not proud of," asserts Watertown, Wis., Police Chief Tim Roets, whose agency began participating in the Jefferson County Teen Court a few years ago. He says peer courts help correct problem behaviors before they put youth at risk. "If you can leave a lasting impression and correct these behaviors without a rigid fine or an offense that remains on their record throughout their teenage years, you can't help but be successful," he says.
Youth court principles
At its core, youth court has two main goals:
- Response to the behavior. That's its forte, says Jack Levine, president of Tallahassee, Fla.'s 4Generations Institute, a non-profit organization designed to bridge the gap between generations. The community and public policy consultant on juvenile crime for the National Association of Youth Courts says the programs set up a system of contractual relationships. Evidence is brought forth for teen jurors to base their decisions upon. Behavioral consequences might include restitution, community service and personal restrictions. The program also incorporates an implied threat — a youth who fails to follow through faces further referrals and severe consequences.
- Building youth responsibility. The civic aspect, brought about through community service, jury duty and restitution, teaches youth about their responsibilities within the community. "It allows a young person whose behaviors are deemed inappropriate to develop skills and tools that turn into appropriate behavior," Levine says, pointing out that youth court participation can be a mechanism for this to occur. Some of the best youth court ambassadors, he says, came through the doors with an offense on paper.