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Three years of teen court offender outcomes.

Since the early 1980s, Teen Courts have provided youthful offenders with an alternative to the standard juvenile justice system. The substantive increase in youth courts, from fewer than 100 to over 1000, is evidence of the strong advocacy for these programs (National Youth Court Center, 2005). Further, according to current outcome evaluation data, youth court offenders have lower recidivism rates than offenders in other juvenile adjudicating formats (Butts, Buck, & Coggeshall, 2002). The majority of youth court programs focus on first-time offenders (Acker, Hendrix, Hogan, & Kordzek, 2001), although there is general acknowledgement that repeat youthful offenders constitute a major problem in the juvenile justice system (Umbreit, 1993). Recently, researchers reported that repeat offenders who were processed through Teen Court (TC) had lower recidivism rates than did a group of first-time Court Diversion (CD) offenders (Forgays & DeMilio, 2005). However, the sample was small and represented only a single year of the program. In the present study, three years of outcome data from the Whatcom County, Washington State Teen Court program are compared with outcomes from the county Court Diversion program.

One key difference between alternative youth courts and the typical juvenile justice approach is the make-up of the court personnel. In the standard juvenile justice approach, including CD programs, adults represent youths in court and adults decide on the sentence. In contrast, the youth court emphasis is on trial by peers--peer counsel, jurors, bailiff, clerk, and even peer judges. During the TC session, the adolescent offender observes the courtroom personnel--judge, bailiff, clerk, advocate--in socially responsible roles. Then the peer jury devises a sentence that provides the youth offenders with positive community activities to enhance their commitment and involvement. For example, one sentence component may include serving on a TC jury. This activity places the offender in a socially responsible role, working with other adolescents to develop a sentence that reflects community values. Thus, through observation of and involvement in appropriate civic behavior, the offender who is adjudicated through TC should be more attached to their community and, therefore, less willing to disrupt the community with delinquent acts.

Restorative Justice Approach

In the standard legal system, the crime is against the state or law--a rather abstract concept for an adolescent. The goal of the sentence is to punish the offender. By contrast, within the restorative justice approach, the crime is against a person or community (Bazemore, 2001; Bazemore & Maloney, 1994). In juvenile court or court diversion sentences, the offender is held responsible for the crime and must make restitution. The restorative justice sentence does not focus solely on punishment.

Rather, there are multiple goals--offender accountability, community protection, competency development, and youth advocacy (Maloney, Romig, & Armstrong, 1988). Community reparation activities, such as letters of apology or interaction with crime victims, are designed to educate the offending youth about the impact of the crime on the community and to provide the community with evidence of the offender's new understanding. A final component provides an avenue for the youth's "restoration" into the community as a socially responsible citizen (see Godwin, 2001 for a more in-depth discussion of restorative justice; Maloney & Holcomb, 2001; Presser & Van Voorhis, 2002). This restoration is crucial because offending youths typically need direction to reinstate themselves positively with their peers and adults. An effective restorative justice sentence pairs accountability with socially responsible behavior for the offender.

However, although the components of restorative justice are clearly delineated, examinations of their efficacy are few. Well-designed evaluations of youth court programs are increasing but vary in their focus. Some researchers have identified attitude changes such as a more positive view of police officers and the legal system after their youth court adjudication (Fox et al., 1994). In New Mexico and Kentucky, evaluators focused on recidivism rates (Harrison, Maupin, & Mays, 2001; Minor, Wells, Soderstrom, Bingham, & Williamson, 1999). For example, re-offense rates for youth court offenders in New Mexico were lower than those of any other diversion program in that state. Further, at one year follow-up, lower recidivism was associated with having served on a youth court jury. In the Kentucky program, adolescent offenders who completed more hours of community service were less likely to re-offend. Neither program directly compared youth court offenders with youth offenders from other adjudicating formats. Thus, it was not possible to evaluate fully the impact of peer-mandated sentences.

More recent investigations of youth court programs have included comparisons with non-youth court offenders. In Idaho researchers randomly assigned first-time charged youthful offenders to one of four court programs--Juvenile Accountability, Youth Court, Magistrate Court, and Educational Control (Patrick, Marsh, Bundy, Mimura, & Perkins, 2004). The crime was limited to Minor in Possession (MIP) of alcohol or tobacco. There were no significant differences in recidivism across the four groups in the first year of the research project, although the authors noted a trend toward lower recidivism in the Juvenile Accountability group. Butts and colleagues (2002) reported that, in three of the four states surveyed, youth court offenders had lower recidivism rates than offenders processed through traditional juvenile courts. In the fourth state, Maryland, the youth court and diversion rates were comparable. In the Butts et al. study, the adolescent crimes included a range of misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. Although limited to a single data-collection period, the Butts et al. study is noteworthy for its multi-site controlled comparison of youth court programs.

One possible reason for the dearth of comparison studies is the difficulty in identifying and obtaining an appropriate comparison group. A viable comparison group would be matched on characteristics such as crime, age, and gender. The comparison group should have similar adjudicating experiences to those of youth court defendants, differing only on the make-up of the sentencing group--peers versus adults. With these considerations in mind, CD youthful offenders were selected as the youth court comparison sample. CD is a program designed for first-time offenders of non-felony crimes. TC offenders were adjudicated through CD for their first crime but are not eligible for their second offense. TC offenders' second offense falls into the same category as those of CD offenders--misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors. CD and TC offenders have admitted their guilt and hence are most concerned with the sentence. In addition, reparation to the community is common to both TC and CD sentences. The main difference between TC and CD adjudication formats is the reliance on a peer jury rather than an adult panel. Thus, a comparison between TC and CD offender outcomes is a suitable method to examine the impact of the peer sanction and modeling unique to youth courts.

Current Study

The current study examined TC offender outcomes across three years. This article is a follow-up of the first-year findings of the Whatcom County Teen Court Program (for a more detailed description see Forgays & DeMilio, 2005). Outcome measures for the repeat adolescent offenders included self-report inventories and behavioral indices. Offenders described their Teen Court experiences and their own social competencies. Behavioral evidence of positive or negative outcomes was derived from sentence completion data, court records, and involvement in TC sessions subsequent to sentence requirements. Recidivism was defined as being charged with a crime after the TC session. Sentence completion and re-offense rates were compared with rates of first-time offenders adjudicated through CD programs. It was anticipated that across the three years, TC offenders would have higher sentence completion and lower recidivism rates than CD offenders.



Eighty-four youthful offenders, 58 males and 26 females, agreed to be sentenced through the Whatcom County Teen Court program. Of those reporting ethnicity, 85% indicated Caucasian, 4% Hispanic, 2% African-American, 1% Native American, and 8% Other (East Indian, Ukrainian, or more than one ethnic identity). The average age for boys and girls was 15.55 years and all but 3 lived at home with at least one biological parent. Over 91% of the offenders were enrolled in school and the remaining 9% either were not enrolled in a public school or were working on their GED. Boys and girls reported a different pattern of school performance. There were more boys on the extremes--more failing (22%) and more As & Bs (7%)--than girls (5% and 4%, respectively). There were more girls (58%) than boys (34%) reporting grades in the Cs & Ds range. In the past year, a substantial percentage of girls (38%) and boys (31%) had been suspended from school for violations unrelated to the TC crime.

Data on the CD comparison group were limited to sentence completion and re-offense rates. Cases were randomly selected from a list obtained from Juvenile Justice Services. The list had been stratified by gender, and CD crimes were limited to misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors. All CD cases were first-time offenders.


Northwest Youth Services Intake & Assessment Record/Evaluation Form. The Intake & Assessment Record elicits offender demographic information and information about current and previous offenses. The Evaluation form identifies the degree to which each sentence component was completed. A post-sentence completion interview is the final part of the Evaluation Form.

Exit Survey is a nine-item satisfaction survey. The offenders indicate the perceived fairness of the sentence and their understanding of the Teen Court process. Sentence fairness is rated on a four-point scale from too harsh to very fair. The remaining survey items are presented in a yes/no format. "The sentence made sense to me" is an example. Internal consistency is .67 across the three years.

Harter: Self-Perception Profile for Adolescents (Harter, 1985). The Hurter inventory provides information about how adolescents see themselves across domains, e.g., scholastic competence, social acceptance, physical appearance, overall self-worth. The format has good face validity because the respondents are asked to rate themselves in relation to other adolescents and each option is presented as equally acceptable. The measure has been normed and standardized on male and female youths in the age range of the Teen Court offenders. In this study, analyses were restricted to the Self-Worth scale as there was no theoretical basis for anticipating other domain differences. Internal consistency was .85. When compared to the normative, same-age, same-gender population, TC offender scores were within one standard deviation of the normative mean.

Behavioral indices. Sentence completion and recidivism comprised the two behavioral measures. Northwest Youth Services (NWYS) personnel completed a checklist with the offender identifying each part of the sentence and the degree to which it had been completed--not at all, mostly not, partially completed, and fully completed. Recidivism was determined by a review of juvenile court records by court personnel blind to the goals of this study.


All TC defendants were first referred to NWYS by the District Attorney's office. Accompanied by a parent or guardian, the adolescent completed the Northwest Youth Services Intake & Assessment Record. As a prerequisite, the offender pled guilty to the charge and the parent or guardian agreed to support the offender's sentence completion. In compliance with ethical guidelines for research with minors, parent and youth consent forms were obtained for all offenders. On the night of the TC session, prior to the hearing, the offender completed the Harter Self-Perception Profile. After the hearing, the offender completed the Exit survey.

The NWYS Teen Court Coordinator monitored the offender for completion of sentencing components, including fines and restitution to victims. The typical time frame for sentence completion was two to three months. At the end of that time, the offender completed an outcome evaluation/interview either at the NWYS office or by phone. Recidivism was evaluated six months after sentencing.



All TC crimes were misdemeanors or gross misdemeanors. The most frequent crime for boy and girls was shoplifting and/or theft. However, an equally frequent crime for girls was assault--almost three times more frequent than for boys. Minor in possession of alcohol or marijuana (MIP) was the next most frequent offense for boys and girls. Boys were more likely to be involved with property damage, car prowls, criminal trespass, carrying a weapon, and disturbing the peace than were girls. Overall, boys were involved in more property-related and girls in more person-related crimes. There was an identifiable victim in 7% of the cases.

With regard to sentencing, 86% of boys and 95% of girls received sentences that included community service as well as sentencing components specifically related to their crime, such as a drug evaluation, letter of apology, restitution or appearance before a victim impact panel. Fifty-two percent of defendants were sentenced to serve on one TC jury for the month following their own court appearance. In addition to serving on a TC jury as part of their sentence, previously adjudicated youth also served 14 times in the role of clerk, bailiff, or advocate. Participation in these roles was never part of a TC sentence and therefore was voluntary, self-motivated behavior. Moreover, thirteen (15.5%) former defendants (either Teen Court or Juvenile Court) served as jurors on multiple occasions, service that was also voluntary and not related to their sentence.

Sentence Completion & Recidivism Data

Across the three years of the funded Whatcom County Teen Court Program, 84 youthful offenders were sentenced by peer juries. The end point for sentence completion was three months, and recidivism was evaluated six months post TC session. Sentence completion rates were consistently high, ranging from 85-92%, yet recidivism varied by year, as seen in Table 1. When the recidivism data were collapsed across the three years, significantly fewer TC youth re-offended compared to first-time adjudicated CD youth ([chi square] (1,161) = 14.92, p < .001). There were no significant gender differences for sentence completion or recidivism. Boys and girls were equally likely to fulfill their sentence requirements and refrain from re-offending. As of the writing of this manuscript, 30 of the original 84 TC offenders are now at least 18 years of age. Based on a review of court records, 10% have re-offended, none with felony charges.

Harter Self-Acceptance Inventory (Harter, 1985)

Seventy-six offenders agreed to complete the Harter Self-Perception Profile questionnaire. A 2 (gender) by 3 (TC year) ANOVA was performed with Self-Worth as the dependent variable. There was a significant main effect in Self-Worth scores by Teen Court year, F = (5,70) = 5.70, p = .000, Adj. [R.sup.2] = .24. There was no main effect for gender nor was the interaction significant. However, Year 3 offenders reported significantly higher self-acceptance than either Year 1 or Year 2 offenders, F = (2,73) = 12.83, p = .000.

Offender Perspectives

Immediately following the TC session, defendants met with NWYS Staff to review the sentence requirements and to complete the exit survey. Responses were relatively uniform across gender and across all three years. Sentence ratings were as follows: too easy (0% girls; 4% boys), too harsh (20% girls, 16% boys), fair enough (55% girls, 48% boys), and very fair (25% girls, 32% boys). The majority of the offenders indicated that the sentence components made sense (70% girls, 64% boys), and that they received clear explanations for the Teen Court process (65% girls, 83% boys). Finally, 77% of girls and 82% of boys indicated that if they had a friend in trouble with the law, they would recommend the Teen Court option to their friend.


To date, the majority of youth court outcome evaluations limit their populations to first-time offenders (Butts et al., 2002; Patrick et al., 2004). In the current study, the focus was on repeat offenders. Adolescent jurors developed sentences based on restorative justice components--accountability, restoration, and offender re-engagement in the community. (For a more detailed description of juror sentencing patterns, see Forgays, DeMilio, & Schuster, 2004). The TC offender outcomes were compared with those of the first-time CD sample. The CD and TC samples had committed similar types of crimes and were matched on demographic variables. The key sample differences were that the TC sample included repeat offenders and received a restorative justice sentence from their adolescent peers rather than from adults.

When compared with the CD sample, the TC offenders had lower recidivism rates and comparable sentence completion rates. Moreover, only a small percentage of the now adult TC offenders have re-offended. Yet, there was substantial variability in recidivism across the three years in both the TC and CD samples. The dramatic increase in recidivism in the third year is somewhat perplexing. On the one hand, this increase can be placed in context--the TC recidivism rate of 25% was substantially lower than the 80% for the CD group. On the other, what factors contributed to the re-offense differences in Year 3?

The explanation for the increase does not appear to be related to demographics. The distribution of crimes--e.g., shoplifting, minor in possession of alcohol or marijuana (MIP)--was comparable across the three years for TC and CD offenders. For the TC offenders, court procedures and sentencing guidelines were the same. The TC gender and ethnic distributions were not significantly different across the three years.

One possibility is that Year 3 juvenile offenders may have committed more crimes than offenders in Years 1 and 2 adjudicated crimes. According to national surveys, youthful offenders report committing more crimes than indicated by national crime statistics (Snyder & Sickmund, 1999). Thus, Year 3 offenders with a first or second charge may have broken the law before, but had not been caught. In addition, when county prosecutors were faced with a backlog of Minor in Possession (MIP) cases, at times they would dismiss the charges if the charged adolescent completed a Drug & Alcohol Evaluation. In these cases, although a youth's crime is recorded as a first offense, that youth may have been charged previously with an MIP. Thus, the Year 3 offending youths may be more practiced in committing crimes and more likely to re-offend.

From another perspective, the Harter Self-Worth scores may provide some explanation for the TC sample. During the first two years, the overall Self-Worth subscale scores were the lowest scores for male and female offenders. This suggests that these youthful offenders have low self-acceptance, wishing that they could be different, Certainly, low self-acceptance can be a cause for concern. However, the stated desire to behave differently may indicate that these offenders are amenable to the restorative justice opportunities to act more responsibly. In contrast, year 3 offenders' overall self-worth scores were significantly higher, suggesting an inflated sense of self. Similar to adolescents with conduct disorder, offenders with an unrealistically positive self-view may be less responsive to interventions that rely on social bonds. (Baumeister, Bushman, & Campbell, 2000; David & Kistner, 2000). Since the restorative justice approach relies on the youths' willingness to modify their behavior to gain social acceptance, the TC experience may have little effect on these adolescents' delinquent behavior. Although the Harter is not designed as a diagnostic tool, the self-esteem information provides some direction in understanding the spike in Year 3 recidivism rates.

The determination of program effectiveness is often limited to objective outcomes such as sentence completion and recidivism rates. Yet, the offender's perspective on the TC process and sentence can be equally informative. Overall, the offenders had favorable comments about their TC experience, with the majority willing to recommend the option to others in the same situation. These comments provide rich detail and anecdotal support for TC as a positive influence on the offender. However, the most powerful indicator of a TC impact is through self-directed offender behavior. A number of former TC defendants returned to serve as a juror even after fulfilling their sentence requirements. Moreover, former youthful offenders volunteered as advocate, bailiff, and clerk to maintain contact with the TC program. A few former offenders even joined the Teen Court Student Advisory Board. This self-determined involvement is consistent with empowerment theory and a strong endorsement of the TC experience. The offenders accepted the sanction from their peers by completing their sentences. In addition, the former offender utilized TC court roles to re-engage with a peer community. Earlier youth court evaluations noted that youthful offenders who completed jury duty were less likely to re-offend (Harrison et al., 2001). Future investigations should explore more systematically the possible relationship between serving in a TC role and positive self-view, as well as a link to lower recidivism.

The positive impact of jury duty may be due to many factors. By observing non-adjudicated adolescents and working with them on a common task, the former offender practices social problem-solving skills. Further, becoming a member of the jury is personally empowering and allows the former youthful offender to see him/herself as a valuable community member. Parent comments also noted positive effects, including better communication with their adolescent and improved attitudes about school. Thus, improved parent relationships, greater commitment to school, and continued involvement with the Teen Court program should result in less delinquency; i.e., adolescents with strengthened social bonds would be less likely to re-offend.

Future Directions

As with any applied research endeavor, this project had limitations. Sentence completion, recidivism, and self-reported personal and family status form the basis of the Teen Court six-month follow-up. Clearly, more extensive post-sentence data from the offenders and their parents could expand the list of possible contributors to lower recidivism. However, after sentence completion, the youthful offenders are reluctant to participate in additional information gathering. Although such reluctance is understandable, a continuing information gap remains regarding developmental milestones such as high school completion or work history. One ongoing limitation is the relatively small number of offenders processed through t the Teen Court system compared with the total juvenile justice population. The size of the group is tied directly to funding. If county, state, and federal resources were made available, the program is in place to expand its services.

However, even with these constraints, the study results are consistent with a growing data base on youth courts that apply restorative justice tenets. In the Whatcom County Teen Court Program, repeat offenders had a lower recidivism rate than did first-time Court Diversion offenders. Moreover, the TC program provides an opportunity for non-offending high school students to support their peers, learn about the justice system, and contribute to their community in a meaningful way (Forgays et al., 2004). Thus, judgment by one's peers appears to be an effective deterrent to future crime, especially when the offender has the opportunity to become part of the Teen Court experience in a later socially responsible role.


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Maloney, D., & Holcomb, D. (2001). In pursuit of community justice. Youth & Society, 33, 296-313.

Maloney, D., Romig, D., & Armstrong, T. (1988). The Balanced Approach in practice. Juvenile & Family Court Journal, 13-19.

Minor, K. I., Wells, J. B., Soderstrom, I. R., Bingham, R., & Williamson, D. (1999). Sentence completion and recidivism among juveniles referred to Teen Court. Crime & Delinquency, 45, 467-480.

National Youth Court Center (2005). Youth court stats. Retrieved August 16, 2005, from

Patrick, S., Marsh, R., Bundy, W., Mimura, S., & Perkins, T. (2004). Control study of juvenile diversion programs: An experiment in juvenile diversion--the comparison of three methods and a control group. Social Science Journal, 41, 129-135.

Presser, L., & Van Voorhis, P. (2002). Values and evaluation: Assessing processes and outcomes of retorative justice programs. Crime & Delinquency, 48, 162-188.

Snyder, H. N., & Sickmund, M. (1999). Juvenile offenders and victims: 1999 National Report. Retrieved January 12,2004 from hml/ojjdp/nationalreport99

Umbreit, M. (1993). Juvenile offenders meet their victims. Family and Conciliation Courts Review, 31, 90-100.

The Whatcom County Teen Court is the result of the vision of Tina Lanci of Northwest Youth Services (NWYS), Judge Charles Snyder, and Court Commissioner Martha Gross. Cathy Beaty (NWYS) has put life-sustaining organization into that vision. Thanks are due Lisa DeMilio of Interfaith Community Center, Kim Schuster of the Public Defenders Office, Nan DeSelover of the Juvenile Justice Center, and to all of the community and student volunteers. This research was funded by a grant 1-200-01100 from the Governor's Juvenile Justice Advisory Council of Washington State and the Office of Juvenile Delinquency Prevention.

Requests for reprints should be sent to Deborah Kirby Forgays, Ph.D., Department of Psychology, Western Washington University, Bellingham WA 98225-9089.
Table 1
Recidivism Rates for Teen Court and Court Diversion
Adolescent Offenders by Year

Year Teen Court Court Diversion

Year 1 14% 31%

Year 2 12% 25%

Year 3 25% 80%
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Author:Forgays, Deborah Kirby
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Date:Sep 22, 2008
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