Court is for Teens — It’s Also for Real

By Michael McLeod
December 12, 2002

Two nights a week, a strange assortment of characters takes over three ordinary courtrooms near downtown Orlando.

Prosecutors wear sneakers, snap chewing gum, twirl yo-yo’s. Smiling judges order people to hug each other. Lawyers work for free.

It sounds more like musical theater than court proceedings, but it is actually a model of efficient jurisprudence — speedy, compassionate, inexpensive. And its offenders, more often than not, learn their lesson.

It’s Orange County teen court, the busiest of several similar Central Florida forums in which teenage volunteers convene to defend, prosecute, and pass judgment on a variety of offenders from their own age group.

The court convenes every Tuesday and Thursday evening at a juvenile justice complex on Michigan Avenue. A staff of four juvenile court employees administers the program, and dozens of Central Florida attorneys take turns acting as judges. But the rest is all handled by a pool of 200 high school and middle school student volunteers, many of whom get course credit for their work.

An average of eight cases a night are settled, with an average of 60 volunteers turning up each session to act as prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors. Court starts at 5 and rarely lasts past 7:30. That’s barely enough time for most attorneys to clear their throats.

“If they ever transfer this idea to criminal court, I won’t be able to pay my mortgage,” says criminal defense attorney and longtime teen court volunteer Robert LeBlanc.

The chance of that happening is remote, given the one factor that simplifies the teen court process more than any other: All its offenders have to confess. Since guilt is not an issue, no witnesses need be called, little evidence need be introduced, and the only thing that the jury must decide is how the offenders will be punished.

Roughly 600 first-time juvenile offenders are funneled into the program by the Orange County state attorney’s office every year. Most are charged with relatively minor misdemeanors such as curfew violations, vandalism and petty theft. But teen court also takes on the occasional felony, such as car theft, and accepts teens who admit to battery, possession of marijuana, shoplifting and even bomb threats.

Apart from admitting their guilt, offenders must agree to whatever sentence the teen court jury imposes. Some of the options are fairly stiff: The teen juries can require up to 150 hours of community service, restitution for any damages, teen court jury duty, essays about the perils and consequences of the offense, and enrollment in other programs such as anger management or juvenile boot camp.

The up side for defendants: If they complete their sentence, the charges against them are dismissed. If they don’t, their case is kicked back into the traditional court system for disposition.

He wears many hats

Teen court starts, naturally enough, when school lets out.

It’s a quarter till four on a Tuesday afternoon when the program’s supervisor, Dave Medvec, slips out of his office at the Thomas Kirk Juvenile Justice Center, and heads for the parking lot for his twice-weekly shuttle run to Boone High School.

Thomas Kirk, the late Orange County juvenile judge, brought the teen court to Orlando in 1994 after hearing of a highly successful teen court in Odessa, Texas. Medvec is a former Orlando police officer who retired from the force and began working at teen court after having most of the bones in one foot crushed in an on-duty car crash that ended his law enforcement career.

Now he has a job that calls for him to be one part parole officer, one part legal adviser, one part homeroom teacher. He tracks offenders to make sure they are serving out their sentences. He trains volunteers to be prosecutors and defense attorneys. When high school fund-raisers roll around, he buys chocolate bars he doesn’t eat and get subscriptions to magazines he doesn’t read.

Medvec doesn’t mind humoring his teen volunteers. Nor does he mind taking a ride in the van to pick up several key volunteers who want to get started early. Boone has a magnet program for students who are interested in careers in the legal profession, and many of the teen courts’ prosecutors and defense attorneys are enrolled in it.

“Most people are winding their day down right now. Mine’s just starting to perk up,” says Medvec. He says this as if it is a good thing. Then he slides the van up to a doorway to the school. The van quickly fills up with books, backpacks and 10 teen court volunteers. A few minutes later, they are fanning out through a first-floor office just across the lobby from the courtrooms where the cases they are assigned to will be heard.

Taking sides

Boone freshman Shekeria Stewart pauses at a series of hallway cubbyholes filled with brief case files about the defendants who will be in court this evening — a girl who stole a key chain from a shop at Universal’s CityWalk, a boy who pilfered two walkie-talkies from his school.

Shekeria prefers being a defense attorney. She reasons that the defendants are sitting ducks — after all, they have admitted their guilt. “That makes them an easy target,” she says. “I’d rather try and get out their side of the story.” Sympathetic defendants can be hard to come by, but they do sometimes turn up — like the girl who was charged with shoplifting after she stole a kit to test herself for pregnancy.

Shekeria can crusade for the downtrodden all she wants. Boone freshman Vaughn McElvin prefers the other side of the fence: He likes to prosecute, with a brusque, no-nonsense style that has been known to rattle defendants in the courtroom.

“Once, he made somebody cry on the witness stand,” confides one of his volunteer colleagues, clearly impressed.

Vaughn allows himself a modest grin. “It’s my job,” he says.

His big case of the evening: A 15-year-old girl charged with battery for punching another girl in a battle over a boy.

The girl will be defended by what passes as a dream team in teen court: Jared Adelman and Ty Short.

Jared and Ty are friends who come here all the way from Seminole County twice a week to work together as co-counsel. They have what they consider a key advantage over the other teen court volunteers.

“We’re seniors,” says Ty.

Bolstered by the confidence that accompanies their elder status, they head for the lobby to find their client, then sit down at a corner table with her and her mother to go over the case.

Part of their job is to coach the girl about her attitude in the courtroom. Like every defendant in teen court, she will take the witness stand to answer questions from both the defense and the prosecution. The jury will be watching her closely for signs of respect and repentance.

If she doesn’t show both, it could be a tough night for her. Every teen court volunteer knows the story of a young man who came to court on a minor charge — curfew violation — but smarted off on the witness stand and mocked the proceedings. The jury threw the book at him.

Now Ty has a worried look on his face as he studies his latest client across the table. She looks innocent enough — slightly built, fine-boned, with light brown hair and her first name written in script on a gold necklace — but she has a laconic, street tough attitude and a casual, offhand way of talking about the attack.

Sure enough, in the courtroom, a few moments later, she ignores her own attorney’s advice and blithely relates how she confronted the interloper, describing her with a five-letter, female-specific noun. Jared tries to coax her into saying that she is sorry, that she has learned her lesson, that she knows violence isn’t the answer. But she sounds unconvincing.

Then Vaughn, the tough-as-nails prosecutor, moves in for the kill, implying that she maliciously engineered the confrontation:

“It all comes back to you, doesn’t it?”

Perhaps. But juries are just as unpredictable in teen court as they are elsewhere. They go off to a nearby office to hash out the details of the case, then return to the court with a light sentence — an apology, 20 hours of community service, and two nights of volunteer work at teen court.

Orlando attorney Nick Shannin, the judge in the case, is so surprised by the jury’s decision that he tacks on an additional penalty:

“I want you to write an essay,” he tells the girl. “Here’s your title: ‘Why I won’t grow up to be just like the people I see on Jerry Springer.’ ”

Peers don’t go easy

Ordinarily, teen court juries are tough. Leniency is in short supply. A 12-year old girl who admits to stuffing five bags of candy in her backpack at a supermarket seems dwarfed by the courtroom and penitent enough on the witness stand.

But later, in a courthouse office that serves as a jury deliberations room, Boone freshman Chenavia Massey says she isn’t buying it.

“Ya’ll think 12 years old is slow?” she asks other jury members. “I wasn’t slow at 12, tell you that.” Chenavia wins over the other jurors. The shoplifter gets a stiff sentence — 30 hours of community service.

But chances are good that it will teach her a lesson. Studies of some of the roughly 800 teen courts in existence around the country indicate that the rate of recidivism — how many defendants get in trouble again — is extremely low. According to one such study, teen court programs are twice as effective in this regard as more traditional methods.

Jeffrey Butts, a researcher who conducted a study of teen courts this year for the Urban Institute Justice Policy Center in Washington, D.C., thinks he knows why.

Butts says that the most effective teen courts are the ones that keep adult involvement to a minimum. He thinks that it has a powerful impact on young offenders to see children their own age in positions of power and respect.

Of the dozens of courts Butts has visited, he was most impressed by a teen court in Anchorage, Alaska, which used a system in which three teenagers act as judges and the only adult in the court is an adviser who is only there to answer questions.

“I was in that court one day when the mother of one of the defendants stood up to say something during the proceedings. One of the judges told her, very courteously, that she would have the opportunity to talk later but was not allowed to interrupt the court at that time. You could see that the daughter took some pleasure in seeing her mother put in her place. But you could also see that she was impressed by seeing her peers operating in a respectful manner, and getting respect for it themselves.”

It was something along those lines that turned one teen court volunteer around.

She came to court a year ago as a defendant, charged with grand theft auto after taking her mother’s car for a joyride.

She liked what she saw and now comes to teen court twice a week as a volunteer.

No courtroom orator could do better than the 16-year-old girl does in summarizing the effect that the program has had on her.

“I used to be bad,” she says. “Now, I’m good.”

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Copyright © 2002, Orlando Sentinel