Their day in court
Teens typically run the entire youth court hearing. They sit on the jury and act as defense attorneys and prosecutors, while key adults preside over the proceedings to guide them. Teens ask questions as the youth testifies and parents are asked to testify about the youth's character. The jury then leaves the room to deliberate.
"I supervise the kids, but have no part in the decision," Breezer says of Jefferson County's program. She reminds jurors of appropriate case details but they decide the punishment, which can range from 5 to 35 hours of community service, an educational class with mandatory jail tour, projects such as an essay about what they could have done differently, apology letters and more. "Teen court isn't easy and I don't think it should be," says Breezer of the requirements jurors set forth.
Having one's peers sit in judgment of their behaviors has a powerful impact, adds Mullins. Teens often think everybody's doing it but learn not everyone is. Teen court works because it has peers influencing peers, instead of yet another adult telling kids what they should do. "Your peers are saying that was pretty stupid, and this is what we think you need to do to make up for that," she says. "It's a pretty powerful message."
Breaking through barriers
Not everyone agrees with the teen court philosophy. In fact some opponents refer to it as "kiddie" court, and assert these mechanisms let offenders get away with their poor behavior. An effective teen court program requires an attitudinal shift among law enforcement professionals and the community at-large, admits Jack Levine, spokesman for the National Association of Youth Courts.
Jessica Breezer, restorative justice specialist for the Jefferson County (Wis.) Teen Court, echoes this sentiment. She says getting officers to embrace the concept can be tough initially. "Some officers don't agree with teen court; for them it's just one more thing to think about," she says. "And many believe these cases should stay in the traditional juvenile justice system."
Most departments, Levine says, champion two primary goals: Reducing crime and being effective. He adds youth courts fit well in this model. "The idea that youth court is soft on crime is false," he says. "You're actually fighting crime more effectively at this level of offender with a real knowledge of what makes kids think and tick. You are putting kids on a positive path, which is everyone's goal."
Education, training and experience can sway doubting attitudes, Levine adds. He recommends agencies participate in the national group Fight Crime Invest in Kids found at www.fightcrime.org and contact the National Association of Youth Courts at www.youthcourt.net to learn more about the youth court concept and appropriate training opportunities.