Giving Youth a Second Chance Through Teen Court

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By: Beyer Bullard

Beyer Bullard (pictured below) is a member of CJJ’s Emerging Leaders Committee. She is a senior at Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Maryland and is active on her local teen court.

I had never heard of Teen Court before a classmate who volunteers told me about it one day. Once I signed up and started volunteering, I couldn’t stop wondering why more youth don’t know about this great program. Over the past year, I have been volunteering at Teen Court every other week and it has become one of my most meaningful activities. 

Teen Court is important to me because I care about the youth in my community. Being a teenager inherently involves experimenting, so there needs to be room for teens to make mistakes without disastrous consequences and Teen Court offers this. Teen Court gives teenagers who have committed minor crimes a chance to learn from those mistakes and move forward without consequences that will follow them years in to the future. Teen Court helps get youth in the community involved in real juvenile justice issues, which may inspire them to work for juvenile justice reform. I think that all youth should be involved in juvenile justice reform because the work is directly tied to the youth population. No one understands the experience of being a teenager better than another teenager so the perspective of young people is really valuable in working for juvenile justice reform. Even if they have not had experience in the juvenile justice system, youth should feel connected to this work because its purpose is to help their peers. I think that all youth should get involved in juvenile justice reform and they can start by learning about Teen Court. 

Teen Court (also called peer court, student court or youth court) is a diversion program in which youth are given a disposition (sentence) by their peers for minor crimes, offenses and/or violations. At a Teen Court hearing, the youth has already admitted guilt and thus the teen jury is only responsible for listening to the case and assigning a disposition. Usually youth is facing their first charge and are between the ages of 11 and 17. The jurors are usually between the ages of 14 and 18. All Teen Court cases in my community are supervised by a volunteer county judge. Issues that can come before Teen Court include theft, vandalism, assault, resisting arrest, possession of alcohol, and possession of marijuana. The disposition often includes community service hours, serving on a Teen Court jury, educational programs, and essays or apology letters. In addition to serving as jurors, volunteers also serve as the clerk, bailiff or jury foreperson in the courtroom.

The main goal of Teen Court programs is to provide an opportunity for respondents to publicly take responsibility for their actions, to see that there are real consequences for those actions, and to help deter them from future criminal activity. Unlike traditional court, Teen Court gives respondents a second chance, as once they complete their disposition there is nothing reported on their record. This is an incredibly important aspect of the program because having a record can significantly curtail opportunities later in life. The Teen Court process allows teens to move forward without a record hanging over their head. In addition, being judged by others your own age is often more meaningful than being judged by an adult. Respondents report feeling that other teens may have a better understanding of the challenges they are dealing with and thus are more compelled to take their recommendations and dispositions seriously. 

The Teen Court program is also advantageous for the volunteer jurors, like myself. Volunteers get a chance to experience and play a role in the judicial system which can help them develop a better understanding of the legal process. Participation in Teen Court helps to build confidence, self-esteem, citizenship, social skills and public speaking skills among young people, all of which will set them up for future success. Volunteering at Teen Court helps teach teens to be open-minded and better understand the inequalities that exist right in their own community. I did not really understand the injustice in my community until I joined Teen Court. But, Teen Court changed me. I think that the experience can instill in others a drive to help correct these inequalities and encourage them to treat everyone with compassion and respect.

Teen Court programs also benefit the government massively. As most of the positions are volunteer based, Teen Court is relatively inexpensive to run. The alternative of trying a youth in the court system can be very expensive. In addition, as mentioned above, participating in Teen Court is a more meaningful experience for the respondents and had been shown to reduce recidivism. This also saves the government money but more importantly, it keeps our communities safe and helps teens get on a path to a fulfilling life. 

Today, Teen Court programs exist in almost every state and are increasing in popularity every year thanks to organizations like Global Youth Justice which helps start Teen Court programs. However, as Teen Court is managed by the Juvenile Justice Department of each individual county, there are still many counties where it does not exist. I have learned a lot from participating in Teen Court and I think it is a great tool to make the world better in an immediate way. To learn more, visit www.globalyouthjustice.org.