“[I]t feels like at times you have more … power in the school system and more of a chance to make a decision for others and help make decisions.”
– Anthony Mayson, 14 years old
“Can you all please stand and raise your right hand,” the bailiff says as he administers the oath to the eight jurors about to hear a case.
Meanwhile, in another room, the “attorneys” prepare their cases for the prosecution and the defense while the judge prepares to enter the courtroom.
There’s only one unusual thing about everyone involved in this court proceeding: All of the participants are high school students. However, the cases they handle are real.
Eight years ago, about 80 youth court programs existed across the country. Today, that number has increased to more than a thousand.
Fourteen-year-old Anthony Mayson says participating in the teen court gives him – and the other students involved – a real feeling of empowerment.
“It feels good. And it feels like at times you have more … power in the school system and more of a chance to make a decision for others and help make decisions,” Anthony says. “[It gives you a chance to] not only be a younger person but be able to be at the same level as an adult.”
Most teen courts handle minor discipline problems ranging from insubordination to first-offense truancy. Teen courts do have power. The sentences are limited to written apologies or hours of community service, but the indictment, the defense, the prosecution and the verdict are handled entirely by the students.
John De Caro, a teen court coordinator, says the youth court helps demystify the legal process for teens and makes them feel like they’re part of the system.
“[It helps break] down the barrier between the “us” and “them” that usually exists,” De Caro says. “And this way, it’s sort of in their own hands and they feel as though they have an actual stake in the system.”
Experts say that parents should encourage their children to participate in a teen court in their community or in their school. If the community doesn’t have a youth court, families should help start one in order to provide their children with the opportunity to learn about responsibility and the consequences of risky behavior.
“It’s no longer something that they just view on television or hear about on the news; it’s actually [something] that they can get a feel for themselves,” says faculty adviser Charlotte Brown.
Tips for Parents
Teen courts are real elements of the judicial system that are run by and for young people. In a teen court, all or most of the major players in the courtroom are teens: the lawyers, bailiffs, defendants, jurors, prosecutor, defense attorney and even the judge. A teen court either sets the sentence for teens who have pleaded guilty or tries the case of teens who – with parental approval – have agreed to its jurisdiction.
How many teen courts are there in the United States? What began as just a handful of programs in the 1960s has risen to over 1,000 teen courts in operation, according to the U.S. Justice Department.
The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) says that teen courts are generally used for younger juveniles (ages 10 to 15), those with no prior arrest records and those charged with less serious violations, including the following:
Illegal alcohol possession
Criminal or malicious mischief
The OJJDP says that teen courts impose the following types of sentences:
Paying restitution (monetary or in kind)
Attending educational classes
Writing apology letters
Serving jury duty on subsequent cases
According to the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), while these courts may vary in composition, responsibilities and operation from town to town, their goal remains the same: to provide teens with an opportunity to take an active role in addressing the problem of juvenile crime within their communities.
Teen courts take advantage of two of the most powerful forces in the life of an adolescent – the desire for peer approval and the reaction to peer pressure. Teens sometimes respond better to their peers than to adult authority figures. Youth courts can be a potentially effective alternative to traditional juvenile courts staffed with paid professionals, such as lawyers, judges and probation officers.
The U.S. Justice Department says that teen courts offer at least four potential benefits:
Accountability: Teen courts may help to ensure that young offenders are held accountable for their illegal behavior, even when their offenses are relatively minor and would not likely result in sanctions from the traditional juvenile justice system.
Timeliness: An effective teen court can move young offenders from arrest to sanctions within a matter of days instead of months that may pass with traditional juvenile courts.
Cost savings: Teen courts usually depend heavily on youth and adult volunteers, with relatively little cost to the community. The average annual cost for operating a teen court is $32,822, according to the National Youth Court Center.
Community cohesion: A well-structured and expansive teen court program can affect the entire community by increasing public appreciation of the legal system, enhancing community-court relationships, encouraging greater respect for the law among teens and promoting volunteerism among both adults and teens.
National Crime Prevention Council
U.S. Department of Justice