Are you concerned about juvenile crime in your community? Do you wish there was something you could do that might save a young person from a life of crime? Are you a busy lawyer short on time?
If you answered “yes” to these three questions, we have a recommendation for you. Get involved in your jurisdiction’s Teen or Youth Court, and if your jurisdiction doesn’t have one, the Maryland Association of Teen Courts can put you in touch with individuals in your county who may be starting one very soon.
Why get involved? Because past criminal activity is the best predictor of future criminal activity and the recidivism rate for teen court offenders is very low.
Other benefits include savings to the state of the thousands of dollars it costs to prosecute a juvenile offender, not to mention that participating in Teen Court leaves young offenders free of a juvenile record that could adversely impact their future. An added benefit for volunteers is that the time commitment is very manageable. (Information about Teen Courts will be available at the Citizenship Law-Related Education Program/Maryland Teen Court Association table at the MSBA Annual Meeting in Ocean City.)
Teen Courts are an alternative to juvenile court for first time-teen offenders accused of misdemeanor crimes such as assault, shoplifting, vandalism, underage drinking, tobacco possession, gambling, and drug use. Teens diverted to Teen Court must accept responsibility for the crime and agree to submit to the sanctions imposed by a jury of other teens. Sanctions can include written apologies, service on a teen jury, community service, counseling, and restitution for property damage.
There are several Teen Court models — some have teen judges, others have teen prosecutors and defense attorneys, while still others simply have a peer jury question an offender under the watchful eye of an adult volunteer judge or lawyer sitting as a judge. No matter which model is used, all programs need adult volunteers to serve as judges or coaches for the teen participants.
Teen Court successes can be traced in part to the power of positive peer pressure. Through their questions and the sanctions they impose, teen jurors (or prosecutors) force offenders to account for their behavior and face the consequences of their criminal conduct. There’s just something different — and very powerful — about teen offenders having to answer to their peers, many of whom are wise to the ways of the streets and communities where offenders live. Volunteer judges and lawyers will tell you that the teen juries are often harder on the offenders than they would be!
One statistic out of Baltimore City’s Teen Court tells how transformative this experience is for many teen offenders: a third of them have become Teen Court volunteers after serving their sanction! Some continue to volunteer even though they have graduated from high school.
This is because teen court engages young people in many ways: through contact with caring volunteer lawyers and judges who teach them about the law and legal procedure; through the empowering experience of holding a peer accountable for his or her criminal conduct and the sense of responsibility that comes with enforcing the law; and through interactions with other engaged young people.
This hands-on experience not only teaches public speaking, leadership, advocacy and mediation skills, but also what it means to be an engaged and responsible citizen. See for yourself! For interviews with participants in Baltimore City’s Teen Court and scenes from a hearing, check out the short video that was made earlier this spring for the Law Day Conference, “Teen Courts — A Success Story for Maryland Youth,” sponsored by the Maryland State Bar Association, the Citizenship Law Related Education Program and the Maryland Teen Court Association. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0FFXprs2Sk.
The following jurisdictions have active Teen Court programs: Baltimore City, Anne Arundel, Caroline, Charles, Kent, Montgomery, Prince George’s, Queen Anne, St. Mary’s and Talbot Counties.
Frederick County has just started a new Teen Court; Baltimore, Washington and Howard Counties are interested in starting a program, too.
As one young lady in the video said, “Teen Court saved my life.” For a few hours a month, you could make a difference in a young person’s life.
To learn more or to obtain contact information for any of these Teen Court programs, stop by the Teen Court table at the MSBA annual meeting. You can also contact the Maryland Teen Court Association at www.mdtca.org or call Anne M. Shawkey, Anne Arundel County Teen Court Coordinator at 410-222-0504; Georgine M. DeBord, Teen Court/Mediation Coordinator — Montgomery County State’s Attorney’s Office at 240-777-7344; or Rick Miller, PDT/CLREP, Executive Director at 410-706-5361.
(The Editorial Advisory Board: James B. Astrachan, Dawna Cobb, Eric Easton, Dan Friedman, Jack L.B. Gohn, Glenn Grossman, Katherine Kelly Howard, Cecilia Januszkiewicz, Robert D. Kalinoski, Andrew D. Levy, M. Natalie McSherry, C. W. Michaels, Mark Scurti, Karen Rothenberg, Norman L. Smith, Donna Hill Staton, Chris West)