Teen court gives juveniles a brush with the court system, way to make amends
Since its establishment in 2001, the nationally recognized Charles County teen court program has diverted more than 2,400 teens ages 12 to 17 from formal prosecution, giving them a clean slate and a second chance without the cost and stigma of a juvenile criminal record.
For first-time traffic or misdemeanor offenders ages 12 to 17 who admit their involvement, the program implements a “grand jury format” in which teenage volunteers along with former respondents serve as jurors, asking questions and deliberating amongst themselves to determine a suitable sentence of community service hours coupled with other sanctions, like writing a letter of apology, requiring them to interview a police officer, or assigning teen court jury duty. With an adult volunteer presiding as judge, teen volunteers also serve as defense attorneys, arguing for a lesser punishment for the respondent, as prosecutors make their case for stricter sanctions.
“These are really great kids. Just because they’ve made not the best choices, it should not mark them for the rest of their life,” said program coordinator Sarah Vaughan. “With teen court we want them to understand that they need to grow from this, and a lot of them do.”
The diversion program is designed to prevent recidivism by imparting a positive learning experience to young respondents, and sometimes the court-ordered community service leads them to other opportunities.
“Besides having their case completely wiped clean, a lot of them find like a home, they find their niche,” Vaughan said. “Some kids have come in here and we mandate community service, and then they end up joining the rescue squad, or find out they love working with animals, so maybe they become a vet tech. So that’s kind of inspiring.”
On June 9, a 12-year-old boy charged with second-degree assault appeared for his teen court hearing.
“You only get one opportunity to come to teen court,” volunteer judge Vanessa Caldwell told him. “Consider this your second chance.”
The incident began with an argument on the school bus, the respondent said, and escalated into a fight when they arrived at school. He believed the other kid was purposefully harassing him by kicking his shoes, so he punched him in the upper body several times after warning him to stop.
Jurors asked several questions including, “Have you ever been in a fight before?” and “How would you handle the situation now?”
After the jury exhausted their questions, they deliberated and voted on sanctions.
Ultimately, they mandated that the boy would have 60 days to complete 32 hours of community service, three jury duty assignments, a letter of apology to the victim, an essay on how to better control anger and a life-plan for the next five, 10, and 15 years.
Vaughan spoke highly of the volunteer jurors, who she said are acutely aware of how important their role is.
“They all have an impact,” she said. “They all known that somehow they are affecting a kid sometime down the road ... they just blow me away. Some of them, over the years, they’ve taken kids under their wings to they to help them and they form a really great bond, so that’s always awesome.”
“This is my whole life. These kids mean the world to me,” she continued. “And I want to watch them grow up and succeed and do great.”
Nicholas Shutters, 16, of La Plata acts as the jury foreman during teen court. Shutters, a volunteer, aspires to join the Navy ROTC program in college so that he may become a Naval attorney.