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Despite recent declines in youth confinement, the United States is infamously known for incarcerating more youth offenders than any other country in the world. In 2016 alone, approximately 1,000,000 adolescents were sent to juvenile court, with around 50,000 of them transferred to juvenile detention facilities. In the past 5 years, only 25% of the offenders sent to juvie have committed horrendous crimes which led to their incarceration; in comparison, 40% of this youth have been imprisoned due to misdemeanors or technical violation of probation.
Empirically, youth incarceration drastically increases recidivism rates, meaning juveniles who are imprisoned are highly likely to commit additional crimes after leaving their detention centers. In fact, on average 70% of youth held in secure detention facilities are arrested and returned to detention centers within a year after their release. The Justice Policy Institute even proves that the most common indicator of recidivism is prior commitment, with previous imprisonment increasing the odds of youth recidivism 13.5 times.
Clearly, an alternative method is needed to ensure that pre-teens and teenagers in society do not commit crime, as the current punitive system is highly ineffective.
The Solution? Teen Court.
What is it?
Teen Court, also referred to as Youth Court or Peer Court, is a relatively new addition to the juvenile justice system. It is set apart from Juvenile Court because of its unique reliance on teenagers to promote legal discipline. Teen Court is comprised entirely of volunteers, with teenagers taking on the roles of jury members, attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, and judges. Though the specific set-up varies from court to court, the principle idea behind Teen Court is the same: the most effective and affordable method for juvenile rehabilitation is trial by peers.
Teen Court deals exclusively with misdemeanor crimes, typically targeting Class C misdemeanors though some courts hold trials for Class B and A misdemeanors as well. So long as the offense is committed in a district with an existing program, offenders who commit a crime when 17 or under are able to attend Teen Court. The only requirement is that the juveniles who participate in this program admit guilt or plead no contest; if they plead not guilty, then they are automatically sent to Juvenile Court. Upon completion of their community service sentence in 90 days, youth offenders can petition to have their cases officially sealed forever. The diagram shown below depicts the step-by-step Teen Court process.
Why Teen Court?
*Disclaimer: I interviewed teen jurors at Plano Teen Court, but given that they are younger than 18, I was asked not to provide their information to ensure no legal issues. That is why the quotes do not have names associated with them.*
Teen Court is the best solution to the current judicial process; the reason is four-fold.
First, Teen Court uses peer association in a positive manner. As multiple sources indicate, just as association with deviant peers is associated with criminal behavior, pressure from pro-social peers empirically propels teenagers toward law-abiding behavior. Juvenile Court is comprised of adult attorneys and judges, and young jurors may perceive the decisions undertaken by adults as demeaning. On the contrary, Teen Court fosters peer collaboration, which is said to reduce the likelihood of teenagers running afoul in the future.
“I’ve seen a lot of cases that are pure mistakes, of people being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And I just want to help them to make sure that they do not commit a crime again later.”
Furthermore, the Teen Court process is very streamlined. Since the court is run by teenagers, there are strict guidelines that each court must follow in terms of judicial sentencing. As compared to Juvenile Court, in which judges hold a fair amount of power, at Teen Court judges cannot increase or decrease a defendant’s sentence beyond a predetermined set of community service hours. This creates more unity within the system by ensuring that defendants who have committed the same crime receive similar sentences. Beyond analogous sentencing, the streamlined process also allows for time efficiency. An effective court is able to hear cases within days to weeks after an offender’s arrest, whereas in juvenile courts this movement can take months.
Teen Court is also extremely beneficial because it is cost-efficient, both for the state government as well as for the defendant. Since the teenagers who participate in the program are volunteers, the government incurs tremendous savings in terms of the costs of prosecution attorneys and judges. Similarly, defendants do not have to pay for defense attorneys, and they only have to pay a small fee to participate in the program. The minuscule cost incurred by the defendant is traded off for higher sentencing, as Teen Court defendants must complete an assigned number of community service hours in a 90-day period. This community service not only rehabilitates the defendant but also benefits the greater community, which is why Teen Court is gaining in popularity.
Low cost is a key component of the Teen Court system because a plethora of youth offenders come from low-income families. The higher costs in other juvenile court systems put hefty burdens on many households, and the inability to pay costs, fines, or fees often result in harsh legal consequences. In 26 states, young delinquents who cannot pay these fees are sent to juvenile placement centers, and in another 24 states a failure to pay fees results in the inability to get cases expunged. This pushes impoverished people deeper into the juvenile justice system and, in many cases, increases recidivism. Hence, in the long run Teen Court’s cost effectiveness is critical because it benefits the greater community and ensures that less youth are imprisoned in juvenile detention facilities.
“That’s the whole point, right? Why punish someone to such an extent that they commit the crime again? Rehabilitation is key.”
Lastly, Teen Court is favorable because it decreases recidivism rates. Since offenders who participate in the program are required to admit guilt, young delinquents are forced to accept responsibility for their decisions. Especially for younger offenders, the action of acknowledging accountability in front of a full courtroom takes a lot of courage and ensures that these teens will not make negative decisions again. It is for this reason that the recidivism rate for Teen Court offenders is 6%, while that for Juvenile Court offenders is 23%. This low recidivism rate by itself justifies why Teen Courts ought to become an integral part of our juvenile justice system.
As a teen attorney, I wholeheartedly believe in the Teen Court system. Do you?
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