In the "A jury of their peers" article in the July 2009 issue of Law Enforcement Technology, youth court programs, which involve a jury panel of former teen defendants who hear the case, were explored (pages 46-50).
To benefit our dedicated readers and further our coverage on teen courts, in addition to the story that appeared in our print version, we offer the following supplemental material as an online exclusive:
Custom-designed teen court programs
Each community can and should fashion its own program designed to meet its unique needs. In fact, Jack Levine, president of Tallahassee, Fla.'s 4Generations Institute, a non-profit organization, says out of the 1,200 programs in 49 states, no two look exactly the same. "The beauty is that communities get to decide the answers to teen's problem behaviors," says Tracy Mullins, senior research associate with the American Probation and Parole Association. The best programs weigh the problems the community currently has among its youth. For instance: Are police seeing a lot of shoplifting? Is underage drinking a problem? Are there many cases of vandalism? Is the community plagued with truant youth?
Once the problems are known, participants can determine which offenses peer courts might be able to address. These may include possession of alcohol, small amounts of illegal substances or tobacco; vandalism and minor theft. Levine asserts that sometimes the offenses extend to situations where teens are acting like teens, including the shove, the punch, the tussle, or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Cases involving inappropriate aggression might include those where someone was hurt, he says, but not instances involving weaponry or assault.
Mullins says she's seen a move for youth courts to tackle more serious crimes, but recommends communities proceed with caution. "They should ask, 'Why are we doing this?' " she says. "Is it because the community has appropriate options for these kinds of cases?" Programs addressing more serious crimes require the ready availability of community services for substance abuse, anger management, mental health and more, to help place troubled youth on the right path.
The referral process also can be custom designed. Some jurisdictions require all referrals to come from the police department, while others allow referrals to originate with anyone in the juvenile justice system, and still others look to the school district. "This is a very local decision," states Mullins, "that requires communities to consider how cases flow through the system."
Watertown (Wis.) police officers make referrals when they issue citations for a set group of violations. Here, they inform the teen of their eligibility for teen court and provide contact information. It is up to the teens to indicate their desire to have their case addressed in youth court.
The common element in all programs is that affected teens must express remorse and admit guilt to participate. In Jefferson County, Wis., this is determined in an eligibility meeting with Jessica Breezer, restorative justice specialist. Breezer weighs the facts of the case and determines whether or not it meets specific criteria. If the case passes muster, a court hearing is set for approximately 30 days later. The citation then sits in limbo until the hearing.