Sec­ond chance

Maryland Independent - - Front Page - By AN­DREW RICHARD­SON arichard­son@somd­news.com Twit­ter: @An­drew_IndyNews

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.”

STAFF PHOTO BY AN­DREW RICHARD­SON

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.

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