Participants say Teen Court Produces Positive Results

A Different Brand of Justice

by Chris Essig, August 29, 2010
Register-Mail

As he sits in the witness stand, staring sternly out at the small gathering inside the courtroom, the teenager faces a series of rapid-fire questions from not only the prosecution but from his defense attorney and even the judge as well.

The boy takes it in stride, admitting openly to the charges he is facing of possession of cannabis and possession of drug paraphernalia. Arrested in April, he tells the jury he’s since quit smoking cigarettes and marijuana, which he admits he used several times a week.

He also relays the drug’s ill effects on his social life. At school, he played football, basketball and baseball. But when he started using marijuana at age 12, he stopped enrolling in sports and hasn’t for a year. Now, at the fragile age of 14, he says he wants to give up marijuana for good.

“I’m sorry,” he says. “I know sports are a lot more important than drugs.”

As the prosecution continues to nudge the defendant with its questions, the court learns the teenager spent half of his allowance money — roughly $20 a week — on cannabis. He admits it wasn’t the best use of the little money he has.

“I’d just be throwing money down the drain,” he says when asked about the financial impact of continuing to smoke cigarettes and use drugs. “It wouldn’t be doing any good at all.”

Teens sentencing teens

The teenager is on trial in Knox County Teen Court, a diversion program for misdemeanor offenders between the ages of 9 and 18. The program is open to first-time offenders, like the 14-year-old on trial.

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Knox County Teen Court Judge Michelle Fitzsimmons, Galesburg, instructs the jurors before sending them into deliberations during a proceeding earlier this month in the Knox County Courthouse. Fitzsimmons is an attorney in Rock Island.

Teen Court is in many ways set up like the juvenile or adult justice system. The kids must go on trial, face a jury and receive a penalty based on the crime they’ve committed.

But Teen Court has key differences. All participants must first admit their guilt before entering the program. And the jury deciding their sentences is composed of fellow teenagers, many of whom have made their way through the Teen Court system in the past or are working their way through it. “It’s teen sentencing teens,” said Paula Johnson, coordinator of Teen Court. “When they are looking and seeing nothing but their peers in the jury and then having their fellow teens ask them these questions and holding them accountable for their actions, they break.”

In fact, all teens who go through Teen Court must come back and volunteer as a juror as part of their sentence.

“You have been judged now it’s your turn to take responsibility and judge another,” said local attorney Steve Watts, who helped write the Teen Court bylaws when the program started in 1995. “That was, I think, an important element.”

The penalties also are often more focused on the teens and their problems, instead of just punishing them for the crime committed. Many kids admit to other bad habits during the trial, most of which may never be brought up in a regular court setting. One girl, for instance, who was arrested for keying a car admitted she drank alcohol and smoked marijuana. The penalty, as a result, included substance abuse evaluation.

“Sometimes for these kids this is the first time in their life that they have had to stand up and take responsibly for their decisions,” said Kim Davis, staff member at Teen Court. “I think that changes a lot of them.”

‘There are no bad kids’

The first teen court in the country was started in Odessa, Texas, in 1983. It’s mission was to apply positive peer pressure on teens who have committed a bad act. Twelve years later, Knox County had its own teen court, the first of its kind in Illinois.

It was created largely because of the tireless efforts of one individual.

“The history of Teen Court is Lolita Junk,” said Watts, who was president of Teen Court for its first 10 years.

Junk first heard of teen court at an American Legion Auxiliary conference. Inspired, Junk laid the groundwork for Knox County Teen Court, which opened in September 1995. Junk and Watts also helped pass legislation making teen courts possible across the state.

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Knox County Teen Court jurors listen as a defendant answers questions from his defense attorney during a proceeding earlier this month at the Knox County Courthouse.

Because Knox County Teen Court was one of the first of its kind, court officials received inquiries from across the world, including Australia, Italy and Japan. A judge from Japan visited the area to learn about how to start up a teen court. And a film crew from France filmed Teen Court as part of a special program on teens participating in extracurricular activities. “We reached out all over,” Watts said.

In the mid-2000s, Junk and Watts began the process of handing the helm over to a new director. Paula Johnson took over in 2006. “When you replace Mickey Mantle, when you replace the legend, it’s always hard,” Watts said. “Paula has done a really, really good job.”

Junk died suddenly in 2008, having helped 1,700 kids go through Teen Court. Today, she is memorialized with a plaque on the second floor of the Knox County Courthouse. Her famous motto, often repeated by staff members, was “there are no bad kids, there are just good kids that make bad choices.”

Lower recidivism rates

Junk started teen court, in part, because she believed it would become a more effective alternative for teens to the regular juvenile court system.

“I think her feeling was … the juvenile court process was not necessarily effective in diverting teens,” Watts said.

Today, her philosophy rings true, according to local stats. At the Knox County Teen Court, the recidivism rate for the 128 teens who were referred in 2009 was 19.5 percent. Roughly 120 teens go through the program a year, and their average recidivism rate is between 18 and 22 percent, Johnson said.

“That’s a pretty good percentage,” said Knox County Assistant State’s Attorney Erik Gibson, who prosecuted juveniles for two years. The recidivism rate is simply the re-arrest rate. Of the 128 teens who went through the program last year, 19.5 percent have been re-arrested since completing the program.

That is lower than the recidivism rate for teens who went through juvenile court in 2009. Of the the 91 kids admitted, 25 percent — or 23 teens — have been re-arrested since then. Twelve of the teens were re-arrested in the same year.

It’s not an exact comparison, however. Teen Court is open only to first-time offenders, meaning repeat criminals or teens who commit a felony must go through the juvenile court system.

As in Teen Court, juvenile court tries to focus on rehabilitation, which can provide a good wake-up call for troubled teens, Gibson said. But not everyone gets something out of the process.

“It works to an extent,” Gibson said.

Teen Court officials also note the juvenile court system only has so many resources to devote to the teens.

“They have to ration their resources toward who they think poses the most risk to society in general,” said Robby Dunn, past president and a member of the Teen Court board. “Unfortunately, that means some kids that are on the path to serious trouble can really fall through the cracks.”

“Teen Court can give those kids more attention and, certainly, assign way more accountability,” Dunn added.

Gibson said the Knox County juvenile court system has sufficient resources, including two probation officers who keep a close eye on the teens. But more programs available to the teens certainly would be helpful.

“You always want more,” Gibson said. “But I don’t think we’re behind the eight ball.”

Help from local attorneys

Local attorneys who help volunteer at Teen Court have their own reasons to believe it is effective. For one, the penalties are often more severe than in juvenile court, said Tracey Mergener, with the Prairie State Legal Services.

“There are a lot of things they have to do,” she said, including community service, tutoring and substance abuse evaluation. “Their parents are involved, also, and I think that is huge.”

The peer-driven jury that hands down the final sentence also seems to make a deep impression on the teens, said Mergener, who has volunteered as a judge since the program’s inception.

National researchers agree.

“If peer pressure can lead young people into delinquency, maybe it can help keep them out of delinquency,” wrote Jeffrey Butts, executive director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, in a 2002 study of national teen courts.

The study Butts helped conduct reviewed four teen court sites across the country. In Alaska, the recidivism rate for kids who went through Teen Court was 6 percent, compared to 23 percent in juvenile court. In Missouri, it was 9 percent compared to 28 percent in juvenile court. Two other states showed minimal differences in their recidivism rates.

Attorney James Blake of Blake Law in Galesburg says the program’s effectiveness lies not with would-be habitual criminals who find themselves in court again and again.

“I think it serves its own, little niche for those who were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” said the volunteer judge for the past 12 years.

Elisa Tanner, an attorney with Simpson and Hennenfent, added the process makes the teens shameful of the crime they committed. “(Teen Court’s effectiveness) probably has to do with the embarrassment the teen would feel sitting there in front of 15 teens, saying, ‘this is what I did wrong,’” she said.

Learning court room procedure

But Teen Court’s aim isn’t just to benefit the teens on trial. It also incorporates teens into almost every position inside the courtroom, from the jury to the attorneys, giving them a crack at learning the legal landscape at a young age.

On the jury, some teens participate because it is part of their sentence. Others like the program so much, they return, like Stephen McAllister, 14, who went through Teen Court last year. He was one of several jurors deciding the sentence for the teenager arrested on drug charges and could relate because he had been in his shoes. A year later, he touts the program as a success.

“I don’t do anything bad anymore,” said the Galesburg High School freshman.

The bailiffs, clerks and attorneys are volunteers, too. To become an attorney, teens have to first be a juror, then a bailiff and a clerk before they can represent their peers in court.

“That way they are learning courtroom procedure and decorum,” Johnson said.

Some who volunteer are aspiring lawyers, including Tyler Unger, 15, who prosecuted the teenager. Of all the people questioning the youth on trial, Unger was perhaps the toughest as he tried to sway the jury to hand out a severe penalty against the teen. He focused on examining the teenager’s words as he quietly responded to the torrent of questions.

“I love picking apart what people say and using it against them,” said the sophomore at Galesburg High School.

Will Remmes, 18, on the other hand, isn’t sure if he wants to practice law professionally. But being a jury member, including the jury spokesman in the case against the teenager, has enhanced his public speaking skills. And it will prove to be a valuable asset if he ever does become an attorney.

“I feel like the whole experience has made me more comfortable in court,” said the GHS senior.

Tanner, who was a juror on the very first Teen Court in September 1995, held every position within the program before she moved on to law school and became a practicing attorney in Galesburg. She, perhaps more than anyone else, can attest to the program’s usefulness for wanna-be attorneys.

“At least it gets you in that mindset for when you do become a lawyer,” she said.

The big dogs

Back in the courtroom, the final steps in the case against the 14-year-old are the closing arguments by the prosecution and the defense. The prosecution reminds jurors he has been smoking marijuana for two years, having only recently quit after being arrested.

“Just because he stopped for three months doesn’t mean he is going to stop forever,” says Sarah Main, 17, a senior at Galesburg High School.

The defense, however, reiterates the boy’s pleas.

“He’s finally realizing sports are more important than drugs will ever be,” says Ashley Longcor, 17, a senior at Galesburg High School. In the end, the jury, made up of teens like the one on trial, doesn’t buy the defense’s arguments. They note the teenager was only grounded for a week at home for being arrested and feel they need to make up for it by providing a stiffer penalty.

“If he’s addicted, he’s going to need help,” says one of the teen jurors while they are deliberating.

The final penalty: 25 hours of community service, jury duty, an oral apology to his parents, violence prevention workshops and substance abuse classes.

And a cold reminder from the judge.

“Just remember, if you do it again, you can’t go through us again,” says Michelle Fitzsimmons, a practicing attorney from Rock Island. “You have to go through the big dogs.”