One of MSBA President Alison L. Asti’s top initiatives this year is to help youth-at-risk. Asti wants to “prevent the lives of first-time juvenile offenders from slipping off course.” She asserts, “If we find a way to listen to the voices of our youth and provide mentors who will steer them in the right direction, perhaps the children whose lives we touch will choose a better path. Each and every opportunity we take to make a difference in a child’s life might make a difference in our future.”
To make a difference, MSBA’s President wants to expand Teen Court, the public service project supported by MSBA volunteer lawyers and judges, into a statewide initiative that assists youth-at-risk in all corners of the state. This early-intervention project currently gives first-time juvenile offenders an alternative to the juvenile justice system in 10 counties across Maryland. In the last decade, Teen Court has diverted over 6,500 juvenile offenders from the path of a hardened criminal to one of hope for a more positive future.
Essentially, Teen Court works with juveniles between the ages of 11 and 17 who are charged with a non-violent, non-threatening crime. It intervenes, processes the misdemeanor offense and quickly issues punishment to hold the juvenile accountable for his or her actions. Juvenile offenders are tried by a court of their peers with a district court judge presiding and must satisfy the sanctions issued by their peers to have the charges waived and avoid a juvenile record. Along the way, MSBA volunteer judges and attorneys help put them on the right track. (See story below.)
Teen Court is the focal point of Asti’s “youth-at-risk” initiative, complementing the American Bar Association’s (ABA) national youth-at-risk project. Last year, Immediate-Past ABA President Karen Mathis asked this nation’s lawyers to support youth-at-risk through enhanced laws, judicial intervention strategies and policies, practices and programs geared to help prevent teens from becoming delinquent or engaging in criminal acts. The ABA sought better ways to serve “juvenile status offenders.”
In Maryland, Asti has created a special MSBA “Youth-At-Risk” Committee and charged it with overseeing the advancement of Teen Court across the state to help steer troubled juveniles in the right direction. Susan Leviton and Dawna Cobb will co-chair this Committee, working closely with MSBA’s Citizenship Law-Related Education Program in Maryland Schools (CLREP) and its volunteers and staff. Together, they will lead MSBA’s effort to expand Teen Court and divert juvenile offenders from a life of crime.
“I am really excited about working with members of the Bar, law students and young kids on this initiative,” proclaims Leviton. “We want to create this opportunity for young people and get them involved before things happen to them. We want to help them turn their lives around.”
Under Asti’s leadership, Teen Court will evolve from a more localized approach into a statewide, unified undertaking geared to support first-time juvenile offenders who are truly youth-at-risk. As envisioned, this initiative will: expand so it is available to youths-at-risk in every jurisdiction; enhance the role of volunteer lawyers and judges as mentors to work with and support the youth offenders; create a statewide Teen Court Advisory Board comprised of members of the legal community; and convene a statewide Teen Court Conference to facilitate a statewide, unified approach to Teen Court.
To complement MSBA’s effort, the University of Maryland School of Law is recruiting law students to work with Teen Courts across the state. “This program offers great volunteer pro bono and public service opportunities for our law school students,” declares Cobb. “It gives our students the opportunity, and the experience, of working with youth who want to do the right thing but have not had great role models in their lives up to this point,” adds Leviton. “Our law students will serve as role models and mentors, helping young people who want to turn their lives around.”
“These kids are on the bubble,” explains Ellery “Rick” Miller, CLREP’s Executive Director and Teen Court’s administrator. “Teen Court presents them with an alternative to the state’s juvenile justice system and a permanent juvenile record.” It presents them with the opportunity to select a new direction.
“Without this redirection many will re-offend, and once they sink into the system, it is very difficult for them to re-direct their lives,” laments Miller. “It often leads to their dropping out of school, their failure to acquire academic skills to get adequate employment and increases the chances of their joining a gang. These kids are fertile ground for gang recruiters and they are recruiting. Once in a gang, it is very late in the game to try and reclaim them.”
So offering viable alternatives like Teen Court, early in the game, is vital. Teen Court gets many juvenile offenders on the right track. “Our overall goal,” reports Cobb, “is to take this existing program, which is a proven success, and expand it across the state.”
While she stresses that this project is still in its infancy planning stage, Cobb envisions “outreach efforts to encourage counties without a teen court program to establish one, the recruitment of volunteer lawyers and judges across the state, and a spring Teen Court conference bringing together representatives from every county to work with experienced Teen Court administrators in the hopes of cross-fertilization, leading to the birth of new Teen Court programs in Maryland.”
Thus, MSBA’s youth-at-risk initiative, Teen Court, answers the ABA’s call to support and serve juvenile status offenders, and accomplishes President Asti’s goal of “steering youth in the right direction so they will choose a better path.” MSBA hopes to make a difference in their lives.