The past two decades have seen the rise of a new alternative in juvenile justice. A group of diversionary programs called Teen Courts (also known as Youth or Peer Courts) have taken on a large share of the caseload from the heavily-burdened traditional juvenile justice system.
How do youth come to Teen Court?
Maryland’s Teen Courts divert youth from the state’s Department of Juvenile Services who have been arrested for a misdemeanor offense and have admitted their involvement in the charge. At the initial meeting with the local Teen Court Coordinator, the youth explains the incident and the coordinator determines whether the youth is eligible for a Teen Court hearing.
What happens at a hearing?
At a Teen Court hearing, a jury of other teens (made up of volunteers and former juvenile respondents) questions the juvenile offender, both to understand the incident and to determine whether the respondent is likely to re-offend. After questioning is complete, the jury deliberates in private to decide what sanctions the youth offender should be given (sanctions can include community service, coming back as a Teen Court juror, anger management classes, counseling, etc.).
The sanctions are assigned to the youth offender and, if those sanctions are completed within the alloted time, the youth’s criminal charges are dismissed. If the sanctions are not completed, the youth’s case is sent back to the original referring agency.
Why Teen Court?
The idea of Teen Court is based on two principles: everyone has a right to be judged by a group of his or her peers, and people deserve a chance to make up for their mistakes.
What advantages does Teen Court have over other methods?
- Teen Court leverages peer influence to give hearings legitimacy in the eyes of the youth offender, more so than if the youth were sentenced by an adult judge or master.
- By performing service as a means of restitution, respondents give back to their local community and are brought closer to people who are a part of it.
- Youth offenders taking part in Teen Court can make amends for their mistake without later opportunities being closed to them because of a damaging criminal record.
- Finally, volunteer jurors become involved in a real part of the justice system, providing them valuable experience in debate, public speaking, and the law.