Teen Courts

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The American criminal justice system is not always all about determining guilt or innocence and then punishing the guilty. It recognizes that some “bad actors” can be deterred from embarking on a life of crime, and can be given a “second chance” through programs that don’t result in a criminal record. For examples, see our blog posts about Mental Illness Cases, Drug Courts, Veterans Courts, Family Dependency Treatment Courts, and Diversion. These “problem-solving” or “accountability” courts are not actual courts, but special programs that impose treatment, counseling, education, restitution, and community service in lieu of incarceration and a criminal record.

The juvenile justice system takes a special interest in keeping young offenders out of the criminal justice system. That’s because a juvenile or criminal record can make it difficult for them to turn their lives around, and incarceration can expose them to worse influences than they encounter among their age peers. Many courts have special Diversion Programs for juveniles. But because juveniles are a special case, their cases are most often handled not by specialized programs but by actual juvenile courts.

Traditional juvenile courts are a subject for their own blog post; here we examine courts that are staffed – jury, clerk, bailiff, prosecutor, and defense counsel – by the juvenile offender’s own age peers. Some Teen Courts even have a teen judge, although most place a local volunteer attorney or judge in that position. Teen Court members must attend training classes, and often pass a “bar exam” and be sworn in. We examined one such court in our post about Seattle’s Youth Traffic Court. Let’s take a look at some other Teen Courts – also known as Youth Courts – which handle more than just traffic cases.

Teen Courts operate on the “restorative justice” principle, in which the offender takes responsibility for his or her offense, makes amends to the victim and the community, and receives the assistance of the community in avoiding future offenses. As any parent can attest, teens tend to pay more attention to their age peers than to adults – including their parents. Teen Courts substitute an organized form of “peer pressure” for the traditional “do what the adults tell you” model. Not surprisingly, it works; recidivism rates for Teen Courts are significantly lower than those of traditional juvenile courts.

Teen Courts generally serve only first-time offenders charged with misdemeanors and infractions, such as minor theft, underage drinking, vandalism, disorderly conduct, and traffic tickets.  Because the offender must accept responsibility, these courts operate as sentencing courts; the offender admits guilt, and the court decides the consequences – which may include restitution, community service, education, counseling, and serving on other Teen Court juries.

The Seattle Youth Traffic Court is not the only such court in Washington; take a look at Lake Forest Park Youth Court (limited to traffic cases) and the Island County and Whatcom County Teen Courts.

In Texas, some Teen Courts such as Killeen’s are limited to traffic cases, while others such as College Station’s and Texarkana’s handle more types of misdemeanors. Links to the many Texas Teen Courts may be found on CourtReference’s Texas Courts Guide; just scroll down the page and look for “Teen Court” links.

Other examples may be found in Anchorage, AK; Union County, OR; Santa Fe County, NM; Florida’s 4th, 6th, and 7th Judicial Circuits; Horseheads, NY; and Bureau County, IL. Be sure to check CourtReference’s guide for your state to find Teen Courts and Youth Courts in your own county or city.



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