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Teen Court.

Newspaper headlines and television broadcasts have chronicled the ominously sharp rise in juvenile crime that occurred during the past several years. While everyone agrees that rising levels of juvenile crime represent a serious threat to the quality of life in communities around the country, little consensus exists regarding the best way to respond to this profound problem.

The debate, no doubt, will continue for years to come. However, some promising programs already have proven effective in curtailing youth crime. Among these is Teen Court, a program that uses the undeniable power of peer pressure as a positive, rather than negative, force to help convince youthful trouble-makers that crime yields serious consequences. Teen Court also provides law enforcement agencies a unique opportunity to help guide at-risk youths away from crime at a time when they are particularly impressionable.

In states where Teen Court is in place, youths who complete the program re-offend at a much lower rate than do youths tried and sentenced in juvenile courts.(1) The program also represents a cost-effective alternative to traditional court processing because Teen Court relies largely on volunteers. While Teen Court is not designed to replace municipal juvenile courts, it does offer a highly structured and effective means to guide some youths away from trouble by showing them that criminal activity has both immediate and long-term consequences.


From its relatively inauspicious beginnings in rural Texas 20 years ago, Teen Court - also known as Youth Court and Peer Court in various parts of the country - has grown into a nationwide network of programs, each uniquely tailored to meet the needs of its hometown community. Today, 250 Teen Court programs exist in 30 states.

The central feature of the Teen Court approach is that youthful first-time offenders charged with a misdemeanor offense receive judgment from their peers. During Teen Court hearings, teenage volunteers act as court clerks, bailiffs, and jurors, as well as attorneys for the prosecution and defense.

Defendants may receive a wide range of sentences, mirroring both the criminal and punitive sanctions handed down in juvenile and adult courts. Defendants must complete their sentences within 30 days. Those who do not meet the terms in this time frame are remanded to juvenile court.

Approximately 20 distinct Teen Court programs currently operate in the State of Florida. This article focuses on the program in Bay County, which includes Panama City and several smaller municipalities. Most of the features and principles discussed, however, apply to Teen Court programs in place throughout the country.

The Process

On any given Tuesday evening in Panama City, six or seven juvenile defendants nervously pace the hallways of the Juvenile Court Building as they await their Teen Court hearings. Inside the courtroom, the Teen Court director and her staff coordinate the activities of over 20 students volunteering for the evening. The student defense attorneys, all of whom are in high school, have just 1 hour to meet with their clients and prepare a defense strategy.

While the hands of the defense attorneys are somewhat tied - all Teen Court defendants must plead guilty in order to participate in the program - the student lawyers focus on their clients' character, grades, school behavior, attitude, and any mitigating circumstances that jurors should consider when they debate possible sentences. Across the hall, student prosecuting attorneys use the hour to prepare their cases. Volunteer adult attorneys roam among the prosecution and defense teams, offering advice as needed.

Meanwhile, the director's staff sits in the main courtroom, answering questions, collecting essays and apology letters from previous defendants, and selecting the juries for this evening's hearings. Each jury consists of student volunteers and defendants who are currently serving their sentences. An equitable mix of jurors is important, given the tendency of some defendant-jurors to impose harsh sentences on the defendants whom they judge. Student volunteers do not share that philosophy. Because a unanimous verdict is required before juries can stop deliberations, the jurors learn to compromise and build a consensus when arriving at a sentence.

Just before 5 p.m., the student attorneys, as well as their clients and parents, return to the main courtroom to await the arrival of the judge. A Bay County Administrative Juvenile Judge initiated the Bay County Teen Court program in Panama City several years ago. Today, this judge and several circuit and county judges volunteer to sit on the bench each week.

Announced by the bailiff, who is a member of the Bay County Sheriffs Explorer's Program, the judge leads the court through the Pledge of Allegiance and a moment of silence. All present then recite the Teen Court Oath of Confidentiality, pledging to "... keep secret all said proceedings" held in their presence. The sensitive nature of the cases discussed in Teen Court and the fact that the defendants are juveniles dictate that the oath be strictly enforced and adhered to by all volunteers and members of the program staff.

From this point, the Teen Court session proceeds like any other court hearing. The bailiff swears in the members of the jury and announces the first case. Both sets of attorneys then make opening statements.

Following the statements and any initial appeals from the defense or prosecution teams, the student clerk swears in the defendant, who takes the stand. The prosecution and defense attorneys then question the defendant and can request the opportunity to cross-examine the defendant or redirect questions, following questioning from the opposing counsel. At the conclusion of the testimony, the attorneys make closing statements and sentencing recommendations. The judge then dismisses the jury, accompanied by an adult volunteer, to deliberate.

While in the jury room, the jury selects a foreperson who leads the jurors in a discussion of the evidence and facts presented by both sides. Simultaneously in the main courtroom, a second set of attorneys begins its case with another defendant. At the conclusion of the second hearing, the jury from the first hearing returns to the courtroom to deliver its sentence. As it does so, the jury from the second hearing is escorted out of the courtroom and the process begins anew.

Once the verdict has been delivered, the judge calls the defendant and the defendant's parents to the bench for instructions. The judge reminds the youth that participating in the Teen Court process is a privilege and that failure to complete the court's sanctions will result in the case being transferred to juvenile court. The judge then informs the parents that they are responsible for reporting all infractions to the Teen Court director.

Immediately after the courtroom proceeding, the juvenile and parents meet with uniformed officers from the Panama City Police Department's community services division, who explain the terms of the sanctions. These officers, trained in the intricacies of the Teen Court program, can answer specific questions concerning the terms of the sentencing contract.

The officers develop deadlines for each of the juvenile's sanctions and provide the youth with a community service contract. Once the paperwork is signed, the family is released, and the juvenile's 30 days begin counting down.

Sanctions and Counseling

The Teen Court philosophy takes a two-track approach to sentencing. Defendants receive sanctions designed to punish their misdeeds. The program also mandates that defendants and their parents participate in counseling to help them understand the Teen Court process and appreciate the potentially far-reaching consequences of antisocial and criminal behavior.

Sanctions for criminal cases heard in Bay County Teen Court can range from a prescribed number of community service hours, to curfews, to monetary restitution for victims. In addition to any other sanction imposed, each youth must complete a 7-hour workday supervised by the Panama City Police Department's community services division. During these workdays, the juveniles complete a variety of tasks, ranging from cleaning playgrounds in local housing complexes to scrubbing bathrooms and floors at the building used for the police department's after-school program for underprivileged children.

Defendants primarily complete community service hours at several area middle and high school sites after school, 3 days a week, and on Saturdays. Youths have painted the inside and outside of two local high schools, cleared away rubble from a demolished building at the Humane Society, decorated a police department float for the annual Christmas parade, and sorted Christmas toys for needy children.

Each defendant also must serve on a jury, ensuring a constant pool of jurors for future defendants. As with all participants of the Teen Court program, defendant-jurors must observe a strict dress code - no shorts, message T-shirts, short skirts, etc - and must remain inside the courtroom for the duration of the session.

If the defendant's sentence involves restitution of any type, payment must be made to the Teen Court office within 30 days of sentencing. Typical restitution claims involve medical bills for battery victims and reimbursement for stolen goods.

Teen Court defendants also can be required to write letters of apology to their victims, as well as to their own parents. To strengthen the impact of this sentence, the youths often must deliver the apologies in person.

Defendants also can be sentenced to write detailed essays, up to 5 pages in length, on topics relating to the crimes they committed. A typical paper might be titled "How Stealing Affects the Economy." Defendants caught dealing drugs often are sentenced to write essays about drags and the importance of resisting peer pressure.

Youths placed on curfew or house arrest must be available to answer random telephone calls from the Teen Court director. Juveniles on house arrest may leave their homes only to go to school, work, church, or court, unless physically accompanied by a parent.

All families must attend a 3-hour session with the staff of Anchorage Children's Home, one of the county's social service agencies. The counseling session focuses on helping families understand, and cope with, the Teen Court process. At the conclusion of the mandatory session, the defendants and their parents view a videotape titled Life Inside. The video provides a realistic view of life in correctional institutions and features narration by inmates sentenced to state prisons for drug convictions or violent felonies.

Defendants then tour a local jail. The video and brief onsite tours generally get the intended message across to younger, less-hardened defendants. For those who require a stronger message, Teen Court worked with the Bay County Sheriffs Office Boot Camp to accommodate a 2-hour tour of the facility.

Defendants touring the boot camp spend the first hour walking through the facility and learning about the inmates' rigorous daily schedules. Afterwards, defendants line up in the dormitory area, where several drill instructors subject them to an hour of "in your face" shock incarceration. Previously supplied with notes detailing each defendant's behavior and attitude problems, the volunteer instructors seek to break down the youths' defense systems. Nearly all defendants emerge from this exercise visibly upset, including street-smart teens who repeatedly declared themselves unreachable.


The director and an assistant monitor all active Teen Court cases on a daily basis. If a juvenile misses a deadline for community service hours or written sanctions, the director immediately issues a warning letter, giving the defendant 10 days to rectify the situation. Juveniles who do not comply with the terms of the warning have their Teen Court cases closed and referred to juvenile court. Likewise, defendants placed on house arrest or given a curfew remain subject to random calls from the Teen Court director for the duration of their sentences.

Violators are immediately removed from the Teen Court program and their cases referred to juvenile court. The same is true for defendants who fail random drug tests.

Law enforcement officers receive notification of the sanctions imposed on the youths they referred to Teen Court. The Teen Court of-rice elicits officers' opinions regarding the sentences imposed and asks the officers to provide a monthly critique of the program. The office also advises officers when a referred defendant completes the program or when a juvenile is removed for noncompliance.


At the conclusion of their 30-day allotment to fulfill the terms of their sentences, juveniles have either completed the program or have been removed from it. Those who complete the program are invited to the Teen Court office to destroy their referring affidavits and can resume their lives without a criminal record.

Approximately 40 percent of the defendants who complete Bay County's program accept the standing invitation to return to the program as court volunteers. Those who do not complete the program hear from the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice regarding an impending appearance in juvenile court.

Nationally, nearly 95 percent of the juveniles accepted into Teen Court complete the program and do not re-offend within a 12-month period.(2) Bay County's figures mirror the national success rate with more than 90 percent of juveniles referred completing the program and less than 10 percent of defendants re-offending within the 12-month, postcompletion tracking period.(3)

Low recidivism rates are matched by the fiscal soundness of Teen Court. Typically, communities spend about $3,000 to process a child through the juvenile court system, from arrest to probation. On average, it costs less than $300 to process a child through Teen Court.

Although low recidivism rates and cost-effectiveness make Teen Court a viable supplement to the existing juvenile court system in many communities, the real measure of success is the degree to which the lives of defendants are changed by the Teen Court process. While completing their sentences, defendants often bring notes to the Teen Court office, written by appreciative teachers and school administrators, commending the students for their good behavior and improved grades. For many of the students, these notes represent the first successes of their young lives. Just a taste of genuine praise is all many of these youths need to help convince them to make serious life-enhancing decisions about their attitudes and behavior.

Parents of former defendants also voice overwhelming support for the program. In Bay County, the Teen Court office mails parents an evaluation form when their child has completed his or her prescribed sanctions. In recent surveys, 78 percent of responding parents rate the program "very effective," compared to 14 percent who rate the program "somewhat effective." Only eight percent of the respondents report that the program did not help their child.


Teen Court cannot operate successfully in a vacuum. A partnership among law enforcement, the judiciary, and the school system must exist for Teen Court to work as it is designed.

To ensure a quality partnership from the outset, the judge who initiated the Bay County program began with a volunteer board of directors comprised of stakeholders in juvenile justice issues from throughout the community. Currently, the Teen Court board consists of attorneys, business people, teachers, law enforcement officers, and concerned citizens, as well as representatives from the state attorney's office and the Florida Department of Juvenile Justice.

The Law Enforcement Role

For local law enforcement officers in Bay County, cooperation with Teen Court is a rewarding experience. Involvement with Teen Court furthers agencies' community policing efforts, while it gives officers the opportunity to be part of a solution to juvenile crime.

Currently, all officers in the Panama City Police Department receive basic instruction about the Teen Court program. Personnel from all units - including detective squads - are encouraged to refer first-time juvenile offenders who meet the program's requirements to Teen Court.

Officers in the department's community services division, as well as school resource officers from the Bay County Sheriff's Department, receive more specialized training concerning the terms of Teen Court contracts. Upon observing several Teen Court trials, the officers and deputies can then begin guiding defendants through the intricacies of their individual contracts. After reviewing the contract terms with defendants and their parents, the law enforcement officers act as informal mentors, periodically checking with the defendants to ensure they are working to complete their sentences.

Since its inception in May 1994, the Bay County Teen Court program has been embraced by local law enforcement administrators and line officers alike. Administrators value the opportunity it provides for the area's young people to see law enforcement in a positive, rather than negative, light. By having the option of referring first-time offenders to Teen Court instead of juvenile court, officers can give youthful wrongdoers a chance to make amends - and help guide them through the process - without saddling them with a juvenile record.

By interacting with the defendants as they fulfill their community service hours, officers have a chance to serve as positive role models for at-risk young people. Often, this constructive interaction proves enough to convince troubled youths that law enforcement officers are not out to get them. More important, some of the defendants adopt more positive outlooks as a direct result of interaction with the officers. For law enforcement officers conditioned to seeing negative outcomes, few results could be as rewarding as seeing young people turn their lives around and turn their backs on lives of crime.

Direct Referral

The Bay County Teen Court is one of the few in the State of Florida that receives cases through direct referrals from law enforcement officers. The direct referral system calls for officers in the field to judge the suitability of a particular juvenile for the program.

If the officer believes that a young person is a first offender, then the officer can refer the case directly to the Teen Court office, bypassing the juvenile justice system entirely. Once the child has been transported to the jail and fingerprinted - if the offense warrants this process - the youth's case file, including the affidavit, witness statements, etc., is placed in a box at the police department. The Teen Court office checks this box daily.

The director also checks with the Department of Juvenile Justice to ensure that the juvenile is, in fact, a first-time offender. Youths who qualify for the program are sent an appointment letter putting the Teen Court process into motion.

Often, defendants appear in court within 3 weeks of their arrest. The brief waiting period is particularly helpful when sentencing very young offenders who have a tendency to forget why they are being punished.

Referral of youths to Teen Court reduces the workload of the overburdened Department of Juvenile Justice. The Bay County program reduces the juvenile court caseload by more than 250 cases a year. Diverting first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors to Teen Court enables the department's case managers to work more closely with multiple offenders and those youths charged with felonies.

The direct referral system also helps reduce duplication of services because only one intake interview is conducted. If the Teen Court director discovers that a juvenile referred to the program is not a first-time offender, the youth's original affidavit simply is forwarded to the Department of Juvenile Justice and the standard juvenile court process is put into motion.


The rising level of criminal activity committed by young people is a complex problem, fueled by many contributing factors. Institutions working alone - whether schools, law enforcement, or the courts - will have limited impact in addressing the problem. Yet, together, they can make a difference. Communities that develop an integrated approach to resolving the issues that surround youth crime enhance their chances of reducing juvenile crime levels.

Teen Court combines elements of the criminal justice system with volunteers to address a pressing community problem. The program succeeds for two reasons. It uses peer pressure to reinforce the negative consequences of crime, and it creates a structured environment for law enforcement, the courts, and the community to intervene before first-time offenders become hardened criminals. While Teen Court cannot replace juvenile court, communities searching for solutions to the vexing problem of youth crime might find that it offers a valuable complement to the existing approach to juvenile justice.

Referral Criteria

In Bay County, juveniles can be referred to Teen Court by a law enforcement officer, school resource officer, school administrator, juvenile judge, state attorney, or representative of the Department of Juvenile Justice. To qualify for the Teen Court program, a juvenile must:

* Be between the ages of 11 and 16

* Be charged with a misdemeanor

* Not have a prior record

* Pay restitution for any stolen property not returned to victims

* Admit guilt and, with the consent of a parent or guardian, waive the right to a speedy trial.


All defendants in Bay County, Florida, Teen Court must:

* Participate in 1 to 4 Teen Court juries

* Perform 10 to 50 hours of community service

* Pay financial restitution to victims

In addition, sanctions could include one or any combination of the following:

* Apology letters to victims and parents

* Essays, up to 5 pages long, relating to the crime

* A curfew of 5 p.m. for up to 30 days

* House arrest for up to 30 days

* A tour of the Bay County Jail

* A tour of the Bay County Sheriff's Office Boot Camp

* Drug and alcohol counseling

* Driver's license suspension


1 Tracy Godwin, with David Steinhart and Betsy Fulton, "Peer Justice and Youth Empowerment: An Implementation Guide for Teen Court Programs," in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice, the U.S. Department of Transportation, and the American Probation and Parole Association, (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1996).

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid. However, it should be noted that juveniles referred to juvenile courts have committed more serious crimes than defendants referred to Teen Court.
COPYRIGHT 1997 Federal Bureau of Investigation
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Zehner, Sharon J.
Publication:The FBI Law Enforcement Bulletin
Date:Mar 1, 1997
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