(Details in this article are fictional – example purposes only)
Over the past 100 years the juvenile court has been criticized for not successfully employing the justices and rehabilitation that it was convened to employ. Discrimination, harsh sentences, civil rights violations, recidivism among delinquent youths, and more have all led to much debate as to the effectiveness and fairness of the juvenile court system. Although the need for the juvenile court is not in question, and its purpose for society currently is absolutely needed, alternative programs have been started across the nation in an attempt to provide other means of rehabilitation for juvenile’s and in the case of personal offenses, to their victims.
I am pleased to announce the creation of just such one of these positive alternate methods of justice recently instantiated by the Juvenile Division of Parole and Probation within the Tampa Police Department. Beginning January 1, 2009, juveniles and their victims will have access to TPD Teen Courts. This Teen Court will be housed within the Juvenile Court located downtown and will work in cooperation with them as needed. We believe the addition of Teen Court will lower juvenile court operating costs, provide essential education of our justice system to numerous youth throughout the city as well as provide an effective justice and rehabilitation program for the cities youthful offenders. The OJJDP cites recent studies that have found teen court participation to be associated with low recidivism rates, improved youth attitudes toward authority, and increased knowledge of the justice system among youth (Butts & Buck, 2000).
The Teen Court will be available to youthful offenders between the ages of 10 and 15 who commit a first offense of a less serious non- violent nature such as shoplifting, vandalism, or disorderly conduct. The Teen Court will operate similar to a traditional court except that all positions will be filled by minors. The defending attorney, prosecuting attorney and jury, when necessary, will be entirely comprised of youths under the age of 18. An adult judge will preside to maintain accuracy, fairness and learning conditions. The program will directly affect not only offenders but all juveniles as they become involved early in the justice system learning new concepts and respect for authority.
Participation in Teen Courts includes voluntary participation by both offending and non-offending youths. Non-Offending youths who wish to participate must register for their Teen Court elective course within their school. Chamberlain High School is currently the first to offer this course and has participated fully with the TPD’s Juvenile Division of Parole and Probation. 30-40 students will be voluntarily enrolled in this course each semester (must be age 15 or younger, and have committed no prior offenses; also must not be accused of a serious violent crime). These students will then apply for various positions within the Teen Court including defense and/or prosecuting attorney, court reporter, bailiff, etc. They will be transported by bus to the Teen Court’s downtown location daily within scheduled hours to participate in the entire legal process.
Participation in Teen Courts for offenders also includes voluntary participation but they will be referred by the Intake Department of the Juvenile Court or directly by an arresting officer. Many referrals to Teen Court will also come from Chamberlain’s SRO on students who have committed minor infractions (on school property). Minor infractions on school property referred by the SRO will require mandatory attendance in Teen Court by the offender. Other offenses referred by the juvenile Intake Officer or law enforcement officer will be voluntary (the offender may choose to go through conventional juvenile court). Upon agreement by the offender and his/her parents for more serious offenses, the offender will begin their process through the Teen Court system.
We believe that the Teen Court system will provide benefits to offenders, their families and non-offending youths, as well as to society. The OJJDP makes the following statement regarding the benefits of Teen Court: “Proponents of teen court argue that the process takes advantage of one of the most powerful forces in the life of an adolescent—the desire for peer approval and the reaction to peer pressure. According to this argument, youth respond better to pro-social peers than to adult authority figures. Thus, teen courts are seen as a potentially effective alternative to traditional juvenile courts staffed with paid professionals such as lawyers, judges, and probation officers. Teen court advocates also point out that the benefits extend beyond defendants. Teen courts may benefit the volunteer youth attorneys and judges, who probably learn more about the legal system than they ever could in a classroom. The presence of a teen court may also encourage the entire community to take a more active role in responding to juvenile crime. Teen courts offer at least four potential benefits:
- Accountability. Teen courts may help to ensure that young offenders are held accountable for their illegal behavior, even when their offenses are relatively minor and would not likely result in sanctions from the traditional juvenile justice system.
- Timeliness. An effective teen court can move young offenders from arrest to sanctions within a matter of days rather than the months that may pass with traditional juvenile courts. This rapid response may increase the positive impact of court sanctions, regardless of their severity.
- Cost savings. Teen courts usually depend heavily on youth and adult volunteers. If managed properly, they may handle a substantial number of offenders at relatively little cost to the community. The average annual cost for operating a teen court is $32,822 (National Youth Court Center, unpublished data).
- Community cohesion. A well-structured and expansive teen court program may affect the entire community by increasing public appreciation of the legal system, enhancing community-court relationships, encouraging greater respect for the law among youth, and promoting volunteerism among both adults and youth (Butts & Buck, 2000).”
For more information on the new Teen Court, please visit TPD’s website at www.tampapolice.gov/teencourt. Instructors who will be involved in the Teen Court elective course at Chamberlain High School can also be contracted for questions at 813-999-0099.
Butts, J., & Buck, J. (2000, October). The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Retrieved September 7, 2008, from Teen Courts: A Focus on Research: http://www.ncjrs.gov/html/ojjdp/jjbul2000_10_2/contents.html