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More cities using teen courts for young offenders.

Teen courts, which aim to involve youth in the judicial process while transforming the negative actions of a small group of first-time, non-violent youthful offenders into positive outcomes for the entire community, are on the rise throughout the country.

There are more than 850 teen courts nationwide, according to the National Youth Court Association.

Although teen courts have been around since the 1970s, they have become increasingly popular.

There are now 50 percent more teen courts nationally since 1998.

The popularity of these programs is not surprising. Using education, leadership development and restorative justice principles, these courts seek to bring about a positive community outcome from negative events.

Both the volunteers and young offenders learn firsthand about law enforcement and the judicial system, and juveniles offenders offer restitution.

"Participation in youth courts helps young people live responsibly and act wisely in matters of life and conduct," according to Dennis Archer, National League of Cities past president and president-elect of the American Bar Association. "They come to understand and respect the underlying principles, common to legal systems, that build character."

Local Models

In a typical youth court, the only adult involved in the courtroom proceeding is the judge, often a volunteer attorney, whose role it is to clarify legal terminology and rule on procedure.

Youth are trained to serve as attorneys, bailiffs, clerks and jurors.

With a few exceptions in courts across the country, the young defendants are required to plead guilty with the consent of their parents in order to participate in youth court.

Therefore, youth juries serve only a sentencing function.

This model is not universal, and every community has its own version of a youth court. Some have youth judges instead of adults.

Others use peer juries for questioning in place of youth attorneys.

Ruth Fowler, the Teen Court Coordinator in Sumter, S.C., emphasizes the need for communities to develop their own models. "The biggest thing is that teen courts can be adapted to how you need to use them."

Youth courts are generally held informally, under a branch of law enforcement such as the local police department, municipal court, family court or a district attorney's office.

They may also be administered by schools and private, community-based organizations.

Crime and Punishment

In most cities, teen court defendants are ages 10-16 and have committed an offense for the first time, usually a misdemeanor such as shoplifting, vandalism or disorderly conduct.

In some cases, teen courts also hear minor marijuana possession and underage drinking citations.

The juries of youth volunteers are responsible for sentencing their peers, within general parameters set by the administrator.

These sentences can include performing community service, serving as a peer juror, writing a letter of apology, paying restitution for damages, attending substance abuse classes and writing an essay on the crime committed.

According to a 2002 Urban Institute study of teen courts, "Compared to what they might have received in the regular juvenile court process for a first-time, non-violent offense, youth that agree to go to teen court get relatively severe sanctions?

If the defendant completes his or her sentence, there will be no official record of the incident. If the sentence is not completed, the case is sent to the court for official prosecution.

Lasting Benefits

The long-term benefits of these programs are evident in the communities in which they exist.

Last year, in Amarillo, Tex., teen court defendants provided approximately 22,000 volunteer hours to the community. In addition, a number of the youth attorneys are former youth defendants who stayed on to work with the court beyond the mandated jury duty.

In Lansing, Mich., some of the youth "sentenced" to community service are continuing their placements beyond the required hours.

According to Lansing's director, the court works to match youth with placements that reflect their interests and abilities. In the long run, this pays off for both the youth and the community.

The Urban Institute's 2002 findings suggest that teen courts represent a promising alternative for the juvenile justice system, particularly in jurisdictions that do not provide meaningful sanctions for first-time offenders.

Both Anchorage, Alaska, and Independence, Mo., experienced significantly lower recidivism rates for the youth who participated in their teen courts. In Tempe, Ariz., there was a lower recidivism rate, although it was not statistically significant.

Only in Maryland were the results the same for both groups of youth.

This is perhaps because teen court youth were compared to those in a proactive police diversion program for first-time offenders that offered many of the same services and sanctions as teen courts.

Starting a Youth Court

A helpful resource for interested communities is the Youth Courts Training Package prepared by the American Bar Association.

It is the recipient of the Association of Educational Publishers' (Ed Press) Distinguished Achievement Award for Excellence in Educational Publishing.

This multimedia kit features a teacher's guide, student handbooks, a promotional video and brochure and a CD-ROM allowing localization of all instructional materials.

Designed to enhance teens' education on due process, restorative justice and the benefits of volunteering, the training package also helps shape the community.

As young respondents are given a chance to turn their lives around and youth volunteers learn the value of participation in our justice system, the community gains active, upstanding citizens.

In starting a teen court in your community, "Don't reinvent the wheel," says Fowler. "So many communities are doing this now. The materials are out there. Just ask for help."

Details: The Youth Courts Training Package is available online at webapp/wcs/stores/servlet/ProductDisplay?storeId=10251&p roductId=17767&categoryId=3846.

A how-to guide, "Youth Courts: Young People Delivering Justice," can be downloaded at youthcourtsroadmap.pdf; or, phone the American Bar Association at 800/285-2221 to order.

Other information on teen courts is available from the National Youth Court Association at, or 859/244-8215, or Order or download "The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders" from the Urban Institute at or 877/847-7377.
COPYRIGHT 2002 National League of Cities
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2002 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Johnson, Alicia
Publication:Nation's Cities Weekly
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 21, 2002
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