Teens Running The Court: Scary or Genius?

This guest post is by 3L law student, now graduate, Alison Haefner, co-author with me of “Empowering Love and Respect for Child Offenders Through Therapeutic Jurisprudence: The Teen Courts Example,” 4(4) Sociology and Anthropology 212, 214 (2016):     

It’s all too familiar a story: a young kid makes a bad decision that leads to his involvement with the judicial system. He goes to juvenile detention, and once released he makes yet another bad decision landing him back in jail. This cycle continues, and one day he finds himself in prison as an adult for something he never thought he would do.

Unfortunately, this narrative is pervasive in the lives of young persons involved with the American juvenile justice system. High recidivism rates as well as mental, physical and psychological problems characterize those involved in the juvenile justice system, effectively chewing youths up and spitting them out in time for them to make another mistake and repeat the cycle again. In our article, Empowering Love and Respect for Child Offenders through Therapeutic Jurisprudence: The Teen Courts Example, we discuss teen courts in depth, looking to therapeutic jurisprudence as a framework with which to conduct further research into this intriguing solution to the pervasive juvenile justice system issues in America.

Established to interrupt the perpetual cycle, teen courts use positive peer pressure and juvenile involvement in the judicial system to redirect children from a life characterized by crime. This intriguing trend emerging in juvenile justice is a peer-based forum where children ages 10-17 actively participate in their own criminal process, rather than being herded through a system filled with adults. Scott Peterson of Global Youth Justice, a proponent of teen courts, says in his Youth Justice Philosophy, “[i]f negative peer pressure is a primary factor in leading some young people to commit a crime or an offense, then positive peer pressure can be harnessed and redirected to become a positive force and lead other young people to adhere to the rule of law and become more productive citizens.”

According to the Judicial Council of California, there were only 78 teen courts in 1994, and there are now over 1,400 teen courts across America. In a book chapter on child participation in juvenile justice the four different models of teen courts are discussed: 1) adult judge, 2) teen jury, 3) teen judge panel, and 4) youth judge. While teen courts vary on what types of crimes they review, most children going before these teen courts are first-time offenders of non-violent crimes such as truancy, curfew violations, petty theft, shoplifting, underage drinking, and possession of drug paraphernalia. In each model, the child must stand before his/her peers, admitting to the crime. The teen jurors or judges then ask questions and come up with an appropriate sentence designed to rehabilitate the child, teaching him/her that decisions have consequences. While many of those in opposition are concerned over handing the judicial system over to teens, we argue at page 214 that putting a young person in front of a jury of their peers actually “allows the law to work as a therapeutic agent to benefit the child offender, as well as the community in which he or she lives.”

Our research shows that Teen Courts in the context of family restoration can be a strategic part of juvenile rehabilitation. Teens Running The Court: Scary or Genius? You decide.

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