Teen court: Building a better community

Every Thursday evening around 4:30 p.m. a group of teenagers meet on the corner of North Avenue and Harford Road to settle a dispute.

The Baltimore City Teen Court, a program organized by the Citizenship Law Related Education Program, provides a voluntary alternative to the juvenile justice system. A youth offender between the ages of 11-17 and who has been charged with a minor crime will be held accountable for his or her actions but without the stigma of a criminal record. Student volunteers act as baliffs, clerks, jurors and attorneys during the teen court sessions.

As an attorney, the entire experience is fascinating. Every participant takes each facet of the proceedings seriously. The youth offender does admit his or her guilt and is willing to be accountable for his or her actions. Further, the determination by the volunteer teen jury is both thoughtful and practical, as the youth offender will suffer actual consequences.

All in all, this program builds a better community. But the program cannot run without the help of lawyer volunteers. Adult lawyers are needed to serve as judges, calling balls and strikes. Adult lawyers are needed to coach the student volunteers as they prepare for the hearings. Adult lawyers are just plan needed.

I was recently in an interesting discussion with some colleagues regarding attorneys and volunteering. We started with two basic premises: 1) that any attorney only has a finite amount of time to volunteer, and 2) attorneys have a unique set of skills from other professionals or people. The issue was whether an attorney that does volunteer work should spend his or her time performing tasks that only they can perform (i.e. pro bono work) or whether an attorney, much like any other person, should volunteer his or her time to any organization.

My opinion is the latter, as a volunteer will likely continue to commit time and resources to an organization or activity that he or she is interested in. In this case (for me), however, Baltimore City Teen Court seems to fit both criteria.  Finding the right place to give time and resources (usually at the detriment of other things – there are only 24 hours in the day) is a difficult decision. It is a juggling act and requires commitment. As with anything that is important, though, time can be made.

So, if you are interested in spending time assisting teens resolve disputes, then teen court may be for you. If you have other interests, there is a organization that will surely be happy for the help. It’s just a matter of making the time. In the end, however, it will be worth it.

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