Ten years ago, an early-intervention program for non-violent juvenile offenders was launched in Montgomery County. Two years later, it opened its doors in Baltimore City. Today, this innovative alternative to the juvenile justice system has spread across the state, successfully diverting thousands of juvenile offenders from the path of hardened crime to one of hope for a more positive future. Teen Court, a public service program supported by MSBA volunteer lawyers and judges, has touched the lives of youth and reduced juvenile crime in the state.
Over the last decade, Teen Courts in Maryland have successfully diverted over 6,500 first time offenders from the state’s overcrowded juvenile justice system. Plus, these Teen Courts boast a recidivism rate of 85-90 percent. Nine out of 10 juvenile offenders are not re-arrested within one year, compared to a much higher rate for juveniles immersed in the system. The goal of this effort is to turn first-time offenders around and divert them from re-offending and spiraling down the path to hardened crime. The above statistics underscore the success of Teen Court.
Today, Teen Courts exist in 49 states and the District of Columbia. In Maryland, they currently operate in Anne Arundel, Caroline, Charles, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, St. Mary’s and Talbot Counties and Baltimore City. Essentially, Teen Courts focus on accountability and use informal methods of adjudication like peer jury sanctions to offer misdemeanor first-time offenders, aged 11-17, the opportunity to avoid the stigma of a formal juvenile record.
Generally, the misdemeanor offenses involve assaults, destruction of property, false statements, gambling, possession of marijuana and public drinking/possession, theft and traffic violations. The offenders voluntarily participate in Teen Court and must admit to their offense. Through Teen Court, they are tried by a jury of their peers and must adhere to the sanctions that are imposed. Most often, these include community service hours, apology letters, essays, educational programs and substance-abuse assessments. The sanctions are educational rather than punitive.
With the support of Teen Court volunteer lawyers, judges, community members and youth volunteers, who to date have contributed over 100,000 hours in community service, the juvenile offenders are steered in the right direction. Eventually, some even become volunteers for the program and serve on juries to try other offenders. Teen Court has a positive impact on juveniles.
In 1999, close to one-third of all juvenile crime in the state occurred in Baltimore City and the majority of the offenders were under the age of 15. Many began as non-violent offenders and rapidly advanced to hardened, violent criminals. In addition, 68 percent of the juvenile non-violent offenders in the regular court system were repeat offenders. To target and turn around youth who were headed toward juvenile delinquency, Teen Court was created.
Teen Court rescues first- and second-time non-violent juvenile offenders, 11 to 17 years old, charged with a non-violent, non-threatening crime. Through early intervention, this program saves kids who are potential criminals, diverting them from the state’s juvenile justice system into Teen Court, where they are tried by a court of their peers. Volunteer attorneys and judges serve as mentors to the offenders and the youth jurors.
This early intervention effort holds the young offenders accountable for their actions. It quickly intervenes in the juvenile’s life, efficiently processes the misdemeanor offense and holds the juvenile accountable by providing sanctions immediately to address the situation. Teen Court convenes one evening every other week in a courtroom in the City’s civil District Court, with a District Court judge presiding. This innovative project boasts a 90 percent non-recidivism rate.
Teen Court is run by a cadre of youth volunteers with the support of CLREP and its volunteer lawyers and judges, along with that of the courts, the police, educators and other community leaders. It is funded by the Maryland Bar Foundation, the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and the Crane Foundation. CLREP manages Teen Court and the attorney and judicial volunteers train, guide and generally assist the youth volunteers.
“Only youth who have committed misdemeanors are accepted,” reports CLREP Executive Director Ellery “Rick” Miller. “No felonies or weapons charges are allowed. We catch kids who are starting to act out and show dysfunctional behavior and try to keep them out of the juvenile justice system. They would likely be found delinquent in regular court. In Teen Court, as long as they complete the disposition, they won’t have a juvenile record.”
Young offenders are initially screened and referred to Teen Court by local police departments. After the juveniles volunteer to participate in this 90-day diversion program, the offenders go to a special evening Teen Court hearing. They are tried by teen “attorneys” and judged by a jury of their peers. The young offenders must admit guilt and agree to honor the disposition rendered by their peers.
These peers receive community service learning hours, now required for all city students prior to graduation, so there is a wealth of youth volunteers for attorneys, jurors and court personnel. To date, student Teen Court volunteers have earned 2,520 service learning hours. Many of these youth volunteers are recruited from MSBA-sponsored programs like Law Links, Mock Trials and law academies because they have already developed an understanding about our legal system through law-related education.
First, they undergo training and complete a full-day “CLREP” law school. They must then pass a “bar exam.” This qualifies them as “teen attorneys” so that they can try cases in Teen Court. Jurors receive more limited training. Volunteer judges and attorneys play a key role in preparing and assisting all teen volunteers.
Sanctions issued by the peer jurors resemble PBJs (probation before judgment). Examples include community service, written essays, assigned duties at PAL (Police Athletic League) and service as peer jurors for fellow offenders. In addition, juveniles must maintain good grades and school attendance, which are closely monitored. Once the disposition is satisfied, the charges are waived and the young person gets a second chance with no juvenile record. Teen Court steers juvenile offenders in the right direction.
That is why MSBA President Alison L. Asti has selected a statewide Teen Court project as the focal point for her youth-at-risk initiative. In addition to answering the ABA’s call to support and serve juvenile status offenders, Teen Court achieves her goal of “steering youth in the right direction so they will choose a better path.” MSBA hopes to make a difference in their lives.