Alternate Reality: Teens Run Court for Peers
A shy, lanky teenager who disappears under the brim of his baseball hat, Ethan Johnson, 15, isn’t the kind of guy who gets in trouble.
That changed on a Tuesday in December, when he was caught stealing more than $300 of clothing from the mall.
Johnson, who is identified by pseudonym because he is a juvenile, was charged with a Class A misdemeanor. But a caseworker in the Tippecanoe County Juvenile Probation Department offered him a choice: Instead of going to formal court for sentencing, he could participate in a program called teen court.
Held in a small room dominated by an imposing wood desk in the Tippecanoe County Courthouse, teen court is a lot like any other hearing — there are jurors, lawyers and defendants. But in this alternate reality, they are all younger than 18.
A diversionary program run by Bauer Family Resources, teen court aims to keep youths who commit relatively minor offenses out of the criminal justice system. Instead of receiving sentences from juvenile judges or making plea agreements, defendants at teen court are judged by a jury of their peers — other teenagers.
The only adults who participate in hearings are local attorneys who volunteer as judges, the parents of the defendants and Danielle Scully, the Bauer caseworker who manages the program.
“(As a teen), you always have adults telling you what to do,” Scully said. “Coming from their peers, I think it’s more impactful. In the sense that it’s not just another adult telling them, ‘Hey, listen to me.’ … Especially being a teenager, your peers and their opinions of you matter very much.”
Accounts of the origin of teen courts vary, but most agree that the earliest programs began in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and similar youth courts have proliferated ever since. In 1994, there were about 80 youth courts across the country. By 2010, the model had exploded in popularity, and the United States had more than 1,050 such programs, according to the National Association of Youth Courts.
Founded in 1998, the Bauer teen court was part of that wave. Youth courts are diverse in the types of cases they handle, sanctions they give and how they run. What they have in common is their emphasis on peers holding each other accountable.
In Tippecanoe County, teen court is managed by Bauer, a community organization, but it still is entwined with the juvenile court system. Intake staff at the Juvenile Probation Department refer teens — typically first-time, low-risk offenders — to the youth court, according Miriah Anderson the juvenile probation intake supervisor. As a general practice, youths can participate in teen court only once, Scully said.
“They are never going in front of a judge. They are never going to formal court. It’s all handled informally outside the court system through probation,” Anderson said.
If participants fail to fulfill the sentences imposed by the teen court, they may be referred to the formal juvenile court where their case is adjudicated by a juvenile judge, Anderson said. In that case, they would face court hearings, court fees and formal probation that could last significantly longer than the informal probation process.
Youths who complete teen court still have a criminal record of their arrest. Because they are minors, however, they can petition the court to expunge their records once they meet certain requirements, including reaching age 18 and completing high school or earning a GED.
The program costs $35,000 per year and is primarily funded by the Indiana Youth Services Association. Last year, 82 people were referred to the court.
Before they are referred to teen court, defendants must admit guilt. So instead of conventional trials, the court holds sentencing hearings. High school volunteers act as attorneys, with prosecutors pushing for harsher sanctions and defense lawyers advocating lighter ones. Other volunteers serve as the bailiff and jury members.
On a Tuesday night in May, a high schooler who punched another student in the face after an argument is at teen court for a sentencing hearing.
Before the defendant can testify, the bailiff swears him in. Then the lawyers begin questioning him about the incident.
Their questions are designed to draw out the story of the fight and provide context — showing the provocation that led to the punch, the damage it caused and what the defendant has done to make amends. But the attorneys also aim to spark self-reflection so the hearing itself becomes a learning experience.
“What are you going to do next time you’re confronted with a similar situation?” asks Claire Hazbun, the prosecutor in the boy’s case.
He will talk to a teacher, he said. He will ask for help calming down and managing his anger.
Hazbun asks this question all the time — it’s one of her favorites because reducing recidivism is among the primary aims of teen court.
“The defense and the prosecution have really similar goals,” said Hazbun, who will start her senior year at West Lafayette High School in the fall. She has been volunteering at teen court for 11/2 years. “The defense does go on the lower side and the prosecution goes on the higher side of the sentencing, but the roles are really similar in that we’re trying to get them to understand what they’ve done and give them a good consequence.”
The jury sentences every youth who enters court to jury duty and community service hours. In some cases, teens receive other sanctions, such as restitution, letters of apology or workshops.
The boy in trouble for battery seems to take the hearing process seriously. His punch barely injured the other boy and he has taken steps to make up for it by apologizing. In the end, the jury sentences him to 25 hours of community service, a one-page essay on anger management and jury duty at four hearings.
By requiring teens to serve on juries for other hearings, the court achieves two goals: it gives the teens the opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system and see how seriously offenses are taken, and it fills the jury ranks with people who have been through the same experiences as the defendants.
“One of our best lawyers was someone who had been arrested and then came back and (volunteered),” said Abbee Westbrook, a recent graduate of West Lafayette High School who volunteered for teen court for two years. “He knew how to deal with it, I think, the best out of all of us because he had been through the entire process.”
Most volunteers are the kind of hyper-engaged teens who volunteer in their free-time and enjoy public speaking. Many are on debate teams at their schools. But they don’t just do this for fun or to fill their resumes.
“I really do think it makes a difference,” Westbrook said. “I was so nervous (the first time I tried a case alone) because it is — it’s a huge deal … when you’re arrested, this is your punishment. This is what you have to deal with for the next 90 days. It affects so much of that person’s now day-to-day life.”
Impact on defendants
Although respondents at teen court receive more substantial sanctions for more severe offenses, the program is not about punishing teens for what they did wrong. It is a restorative justice-based model, focused on helping youths learn from their experiences, repair the damage they’ve caused, rebuild relationships in their community, and develop the skills and support system to avoid future problems.
That means that Scully gives participants community service credit for activities she believes will help them develop the skill sets to succeed. For example, she might give teens who are struggling in school credit for working with a tutor. Often, Scully encourages teens to be involved with their community and school or join clubs or sports teams.
“I would never say that any of these kids are bad kids,” Scully said. “They just made a bad decision, and we help them work toward reaching their full potential, and getting back on the right track, and having a positive self-identity and knowing that what they think matters and that they are empowered to make their own decisions, and hopefully make the right ones moving forward.”
Scully believes these efforts are paying off. Teens who complete the program improve their relationships, skills and behaviors, she said. And when Bauer staff survey participants and their parents about the court, they receive positive feedback.
When Johnson was arrested for shoplifting, his father was furious. At his son’s teen court hearing, he declined to speak because he thought the boy deserved a severe sentence. After watching his son work to complete nearly 60 hours of community service, however, his anger dissipated.
Now, the two can laugh about how the older man was so angry that he left his son at Tippecanoe County Jail for nearly three hours.
“I don’t think he’s blowing smoke when he says he’s actually learned something and now he’s going to actually consider what might be the best course of action when a friend or someone at school says, ‘Hey, why don’t we go do whatever it is that’s illegal?’ I think he might have the foresight to say, ‘I’m not going to do that because that’s wrong,’ ” said Johnson’s father. “I’m really, really grateful, that I think he’s going to do that.”
For some teens, the court doesn’t succeed. David Mattingly, an attorney who volunteers as a judge, said in his work representing clients in criminal appeals, he sometimes learns of people who went through teen court in their youth only to commit a crime that lands them in prison as adults.
“The program failed them in some way. So avoiding that is kind of the most important thing,” he said. “The kids … don’t really understand the system at all, and it kind of exposes them in a very passive way to, ‘Hey, your life can be controlled, and there’s consequences, and this is just a very, very milk toast version of what can happen.’ ”
The most straightforward measure for assessing the impact of teen courts is the recidivism rate among participants. In 2014, the Tippecanoe teen court program had a recidivism rate of 10.7 percent, compared to a statewide juvenile recidivism rate of 34.7 percent.
But the general juvenile offender population is not necessarily comparable with those referred to teen court, who are prescreened, low-risk offenders. Among academics who have researched the impact of youth courts — not including the Bauer program — there is no consensus on whether they reduce recidivism.
Jeffrey Butts, director of research at the City University of New York College of Criminal Justice, studied the impact of teen courts extensively. Butts believes their primary effect comes from the teens’ experience in the courtroom, rather than their sentence. In his view, the most successful programs are the ones in which teens manage the courtroom, treating the process with professionalism and seriousness.
“When you’re a 15-year-old or a 14-year-old shoplifter and you walk into this courtroom and you see teenagers up on the bench, there’s a teenager who’s the attorney for you, and the prosecutor is the same age and the court bailiff, and they all take it very seriously, there’s no goofing around … it encourages them to kind of own the process, ” he said. “They are probably getting the message that laws and civilization are basically for all of us, and it’s not something adults do to young people.”
The Bauer teen court is led by an adult judge, but volunteers take the process seriously and that pushes the defendants to as well, Scully said. Defendants usually take their own crimes more seriously at the end of the program, she said.
Case in point: Ethan Johnson
After he was caught shoplifting, the court sentenced him to serve on six juries and complete 57 hours of community service work. He also had to write two essays and attend a shoplifting workshop.
“I didn’t really know the consequences would be that bad,” Johnson said. “At the time … I was kind of mad about it.”
After serving on other youth juries and six months fulfilling his community service hours, however, his perspective has changed.
“I think that it was appropriate for what I had done because it was over $300 worth of stuff,” he said. “If I wouldn’t have gotten caught that day, I know I would have done it again. … (If) I didn’t get caught till I was like 18, I would be in jail, and that would ruin my whole (life).
“I get that this is bad, but I think of it more as a learning experience,” he said.
Crimes and punishments
Offenses at teen court fall into four classes, depending on their severity. Juries follow sentencing guidelines that recommend a range of sanctions.
Every teen who completes the program must serve on juries and complete community service hours. At their discretion, juries also may require other steps, such as letters of apology, counseling or shoplifting workshops.
Class I: This class of crimes is reserved for minor offenses. For example, teens who steal candy from the store or trespass; recommended sentences range from two to five hearings on the jury and 10 to 20 community service hours.
Class II: The second class of offenses includes possession of weapons, battery without injury and minor consumption; recommended sentences range from three to seven hearings on the jury and 15 to 30 community service hours.
Class III: This class covers the most severe crimes that teen court handles, including battery with injury, operating without a license and theft of more than $100; recommended sentences range from five to nine hearings on the jury and 20 to 35 community service hours.
Class IV: The final class of offenses is reserved for teens who commit multiple crimes simultaneously. For example, they might resist law enforcement and commit theft or commit battery and criminal mischief; recommended sentences range from seven to 11 hearings on the jury and 25 to 45 community service hours.