A recent national study disclosed that one of out every 100 Americans is now in prison. Findings of the Pew Center on the States revealed over 2.3 million adults were incarcerated at the beginning of 2008. Many of these hardened criminals begin as juvenile delinquents. To intervene and save Maryland juveniles offenders from this possible fate, MSBA President Alison L. Asti has launched an initiative to assist Maryland’s youth-at-risk population by expanding Teen Court across the state.
Teen Court, a public service program supported by MSBA volunteer lawyers and judges, is an effective youth diversion program that has successfully diverted over 6,500 Maryland juvenile offenders from a path to hardened crime over the last decade. Through Teen Courts, Asti hopes to “steer young people in the right direction so they may select a more positive future path.”
Under Asti’s leadership, Teen Court is evolving into a statewide, unified program supporting first-time juvenile offenders who are considered youth-at-risk. Teen Courts now exist in 10 jurisdictions, and Asti’s initiative has led to interest and expansion efforts in five additional counties. “This early-intervention program offers first-time juvenile offenders an alternative to the juvenile justice system,” asserts MSBA’s President. She would like to offer this alternative to juvenile offenders in all of Maryland’s 23 counties.
Asti launched MSBA’s youth-at-risk/teen court project at the 2007 Bar Presidents’ Conference last October, generating interest among many local and specialty bar leaders. At this gathering, MSBA’s President encouraged Bar Presidents to create Teen Court programs and recruited volunteer lawyers and judges to work as Teen Court mentors and support youth offenders. A statewide Teen Court Advisory Board has been created to complement this undertaking and is developing standards and policies for statewide uniformity.
MSBA will devote its 2008 Law Day Conference to Teen Court to highlight this initiative’s positive impact on youth-at-risk and promote its expansion. On April 21, MSBA’s Public Awareness and Youth-at-Risk Committees, in conjunction with MSBA’s Citizenship Law-Related Education Program in Maryland Schools (CLREP), will present this lawyer/student/teacher conference where adult and youth Teen Court teams work with high school teachers and students, volunteer lawyers and judges to learn how to develop Teen Courts. The volunteers will engage in training, recruitment and technical sessions to hone the skills they will need to launch Teen Courts and help troubled juveniles in their counties.
Teen Courts currently exist in Anne Arundel, Caroline, Charles, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne’s, St. Mary’s and Talbot Counties and Baltimore City, and expansion is “in the works” in Charles, Frederick, Harford, Howard and Washington Counties. Asti will also initiate a youth-at-risk/teen court campaign at MSBA’s 2008 Annual Meeting in June to recruit volunteer attorneys as mentors for Teen Court. Through the support of Teen Court volunteer lawyers, judges, community members and youth volunteers, juvenile offenders are mentored and steered in the right direction.
The thrust of Teen Court is to turn first-time offenders around and divert them from re-offending and spiraling down the path to hardened crime. It focuses on accountability and uses 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. Teen Court rescues juvenile offenders charged with non-violent, non-threatening misdemeanors like assaults, destruction of property, false statements, gambling, possession of marijuana and public drinking/possession, theft and traffic violations.
Teen Court quickly intervenes in the juvenile’s life, efficiently processes the misdemeanor offense and holds the juvenile accountable for his or her actions by providing sanctions immediately to address the situation. 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.
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. These often include community service hours, apology letters, essays, educational programs and substance-abuse assessments. The sanctions are educational rather than punitive.
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 Courts are an effective early-intervention delinquency prevention program with a positive impact on juveniles. Asti’s Youth-at-Risk/Teen Court initiative has already made a difference in the lives of many juveniles in Maryland. Her quest to establish a statewide, unified Teen Court network is well underway. MSBA’s President is hopeful that Teen Courts will continue to expand across the state to give first-time juvenile offenders a second chance to alter the course of their lives so they head in the right direction instead of joining the many Americans in jail.