Maryland Bar Bulletin
Publications : Bar Bulletin : June 2006

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Baltimore City Teen Court Makes Offenders "Part of the Solution"

On every other Tuesday evening for the last six years, men, women and children of all ages and backgrounds have gathered in various courtrooms of the Eastside District Courthouse in Baltimore for a singular purpose: to steer the city's troubled youth from the dark shadows of the streets to the brighter area of public service.

Baltimore City's Teen Court program – organized and run by the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program (CLREP) for the Schools of Maryland – has provided a second chance to hundreds of teens in the state's largest metropolitan area who would otherwise just become statistics in the ever-growing juvenile crime rate.

"The program encompasses the reuniting of kids, in a positive way, to the legal system," says Shelley Wojciechowski, CLREP Assistant Director. "I think [Teen Court] is amazing. [It] just goes to show that the kids just need a positive path."

The Teen Court program is open to Baltimore City juveniles between the ages of 11 and 16 who are accused of a crime (such as disorderly conduct, trespassing or second-degree assault, to which they must plead guilty) and have a parent or guardian involved with the proceedings. Once these requirements are met, the youth is scheduled for a hearing at Teen Court, in which he or she will face a jury of their peers.

The jury is comprised of teenagers of the same age as the accused, and they occupy various other roles within the courtroom as well, such as clerk and floor person; however, actual judges or attorneys preside over the proceedings. The youth volunteers are coached by jury facilitators, which are either law students or attorneys.

"[Teen Court is] beneficial, obviously, for the offenders," says CLREP Executive Director Ellery "Rick" Miller, "but, the youth volunteers are really benefiting because they are mentored by adult attorneys for their role. It's a neat aspect – Baltimore City kids are being a part of the solution rather than part of the problem."

As jury members, the youth volunteers issue certain mandates for the guilty teen to complete; if not fulfilled, the offender will face harsher consequences back in Juvenile Court. Such orders include community service, Teen Court jury duty, apology letters, essays, peer mediation classes, anger management and regular school attendance.

Jury participation in Teen Court has proven to be extremely beneficial in altering the offender's past behavior. The reformed teen develops friendships and bonds to the other youth volunteers and continues to participate in the program long after the mandatory requirement has lapsed. As of March 7, 2006, former respondents currently participating as youth volunteers account for 29 percent of total volunteers; furthermore, in 2005, 63.2 percent of those who had completed the program remained arrest-free a year after their completion, while 73.3 percent of all non-completers were rearrested within a year.

"Without Teen Court, I'd be down the wrong path with drugs or something else," says Tanika, a 16-year-old from Baltimore City. "Instead of people going to jail, [Teen Court] gives them a second chance. I am very thankful."

Tanika was 14 when she entered the Eastside Courthouse for her first Teen Court meeting. Charged with assault, Tanika was given 40 hours of community service, assigned to write an essay and appear at four jury duties for Teen Court. After those initial jury duties, Tanika never left; she enjoyed the program, despite seeing some friends come through as offenders. She is currently the Newsletter Chairperson of the Youth Advisory Council for Teen Court, with aspirations to become a lawyer. Tanika is just one of hundreds of success stories the program has turned out over the years.

On average, Teen Court is responsible for diverting 200 juveniles yearly from juvenile facilities; coupled with the fact that one incarcerated juvenile costs approximately $35,000 to 40,000 a year (compared to Teen Court, which requires an annual budget of approximately $180,000 for general expenses), the program is clearly beneficial on many levels.

"I value the notion that the kids are here for each other – I feel like a small part," explains Administrative Law Judge Laurie Bennett, a Teen Court volunteer of four years. "I feel programs shouldn't have just one success story – they should have many. This program works."

Commonly referred to as "organized chaos" by its administrators, Teen Court provides the participants with a friendly atmosphere and support system, which is undoubtedly a cause for so many offenders to remain with the program following their service. Sara Beegle, Outreach Coordinator for CLREP and bellwether of Teen Court, has constructed a safe haven for these Baltimore City teens.

"I love the kids," notes Beegle. "There is so much potential in all of them, and I like to see that grow and develop."

In a city that is blanketed with juvenile transgressions, Teen Court provides a beacon of light for teens to follow. And through the efforts of its volunteers, that light burns brightly.

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Publications : Bar Bulletin: June 2006

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