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Making the case for youth courts.

Each year, in more than 1,000 local programs in 48 states, 100,000 young people are serving as judges, juries and lawyers in youth courts that are addressing 125,000 offenses.

What Are Youth Courts?

Youth courts--also known as teen courts or peer juries--are a voluntary alternative to the juvenile justice system and have been in existence, in varying forms, for more than 25 years.

In these courts, young people run mock trials where they sentence their peers for minor delinquent and status offenses and other problem behaviors. Under the youth court system, juvenile offenders receive immediate consequences for their actions.

For all youth in the community, the system provides an insight into the criminal justice system and is a constructive community service activity.

How Youth Court Works

After a youth commits a minor offense, a juvenile court judge, police officer or a school official offers the youth an opportunity to participate in the youth court program.

"The four models normally used in youth courts are adult judge, youth judge, youth tribunal and peer jury," explains Peggy Calliham, who oversees a local teen court in College Station, Texas, as the city's community programs coordinator.

Some programs are run like real trials, with arguments by opposing attorneys establishing guilt or innocence, though 90 percent require youth offenders to admit to guilt prior to participating.

"The youth court process often includes juries, bailiffs and attorneys," said Calliham, "roles all played by volunteer youth under the supervision of a law-knowledgeable adult--sometimes a district attorney, judge or local defense attorney."

The most common punishment received through youth courts is community service. Other verdicts include writing essays, oral or written apologies to victims or a term as a juror in future youth court hearings.

Youth Court Data

Most youth entering the youth court system are between 11 and 17 years old and are first time non-violent offenders.

In 30 percent of participating programs, one in five youth offenders return to the program as a volunteer.

The cost of processing a youth through the regular juvenile justice system can cost at least $4,000. Youth courts offer an economical and beneficial alternative, costing only $430-480 per youth served.

Youth Court's Value

The value of youth court programs for at-risk youth is high because the rate of recidivism for repeat offenders is significantly lower when juveniles go through the youth court system.

Most youth offenders who participate in youth courts say their punishments led to "positive peer pressure, a better understanding of the law and increasing knowledge of the responsibilities inherent to citizenship," according to a 2005 study published by the American Policy Youth Forum.

The youth court program allows youth to learn about citizenship and law, improve their public speaking skills and learn methods for mediation. It also serves as a community service-learning opportunity for both the youth sentenced and the youth volunteers.

"One of the most important things about youth courts is that they ask youth to take on adult responsibilities," said Carl Wickland, a former juvenile delinquent and current executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association, which hosts the National Youth Court Center.

"In many cases, they are bridging the gap to adulthood," he continued.

Adults also benefit from the program. In youth courts, adults have the opportunity to work one-on-one with youth.

"Adults have lost touch with youth," said J. Robert Flores of the U.S. Justice Department. "When adults volunteer as judges or advisors, it forces youth and adults together in an engaging way."

Youth also believe in the youth court system. Natalie, 18, went through the Charles County, Md., Teen Court Program in 2004 for driving violations.

"When you are forced to stand before your peers and admit your wrong doing, it affects you," said Natalie. "There are very few people who can go through this program and not change for the better."

Overall, the youth court program changes the lives of the volunteers, the offenders and the community for the better.

"Every teenager wishes life had a reset button that they could press when things go wrong to erase every mistake they have made and allow them to start over brand new," said Drew Schiller, College Station Teen Court Bailiff and a teen court volunteer for four years.

"Teen Court is that reset button. Teen Court gives teenagers a second chance to make the right decision," Schiller said. "Teen Court is about teaching teenagers to think situations through before they act."

Details: For more information on youth courts (training, technical assistance, resource materials, etc.), visit the National Youth Court Center website at

To view or download the American Youth Policy Forum study, "Youth Court: A Community Solution for Embracing At-Risk Youth," visit:

Examples of Youth Court Programs

Sarasota, Fla.

Florida's first Teen Court began in 1988 in Sarasota County. All cases are presented in a courtroom where teens serve as defending and prosecuting attorneys, clerks, bailiffs and jurors.

Judges, attorneys or other adults preside over cases and provide guidance. Teen juries then decide the sentence for a teen, who has admitted guilt to a minor charge. Teen court provides a cost effective early intervention program that helps save the community thousands of dollars annually.

For more information, visit the Sarasota County Teen Court website:

College Station, Texas

The College Station Teen Court stresses the importance of parental involvement.

"Parents accompanying their child to teen court hearings is a real wake-up call," says Peggy Calliham, the teen court coordinator.

For a youth to participate in teen court, a parent must attend the court heating and may be called as a character witness. Often, the parents will be asked about their relationship with their teenager and about discipline measures.

"In this system, the youth offenders, the parents and even the volunteers learn something," Calliham said.

For more information, visit:

Lake Forest/Lake Bluff, Ill.

The teen court serving 13 to 16 year olds in the cities of Lake Forest and Lake Bluff is run through the local police departments. It functions with a "peer jury," where members of a jury panel ask questions of the defendant before deciding a suitable sentence.

Youth offenders are allowed only one time through the program. With the completion of their sentence, their permanent records do not show the offense.

Student volunteers are chosen by the chief of police and the teen court coordinator.

For more information, visit:
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Author:Crosby, Keshia
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 16, 2005
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