If you walk into a courtroom in my local courthouse on a Wednesday night, you’ll likely see a sentencing hearing in process. The attorneys present arguments, witnesses testify, and a verdict is rendered. All elements of a typical trial are there: jurors, bailiffs, and clerks. What separates this hearing from others that occur in the same courthouse? Everyone-from the attorneys to the jurors to the defendant-is a teenager.
Photo: Claire Anderson on Unsplash
Youth or teen courts are growing in popularity across the United States; there are more than 1,200 in operation today. Teen courts are specialized diversion programs in which first-time offenders charged with minor crimes can have their cases heard. They are then sentenced to community service and other sanctions, such as essays or workbooks, by the teen jury. There are several benefits to participating in a teen court.
Many teen courts compensate their volunteers through community service hours. Now that many colleges look for community service in applications, this is a valuable thing to put on a resume. Community service hours are also the basis for many scholarships. Because most teen courts meet once a week, the hours add up quickly.
Development of public speaking and rhetoric skills
No matter what role you may play in a teen court, you will develop persuasive speaking skills. This is most pronounced in the attorneys, who put forth arguments, but can also be seen in jurors and bailiffs. As a juror, you will often have to explain your reasoning, or attempt to persuade others on the jury who do not agree with you during deliberation. You also may have a chance to act as the foreperson, who facilitates discussion and keeps the jury on task.
Bailiffs also have a chance to develop speaking and interpersonal skills, as they are often the ones who interact with the defendant before and after the trial. They often are the first people the defendant and their parent encounter at the courthouse, and so are critical in ensuring the their comfort.
Gain a knowledge of courts and the legal system
Teen courts provide an invaluable opportunity for anyone considering a career in law by providing a safe environment for teens to become familiar with the legal process. In a teen court, participants will have the opportunity to learn about courtroom conduct, the juvenile justice system, and case preparation. The cases are real, so volunteers must take it seriously, but the nature of the cases makes it a perfect chance to learn and improve.
Rehabilitation of teenage offenders
Teen courts operate using the principle of ‘restorative justice,’ which is the idea that the purpose of the justice system should be helping to right the wrongs that defendants commit. Therefore, teen defendant’s sanctions involve giving back to the community and reflecting upon what they did and why it was wrong. These sanctions usually involve community service, essays, and apologies to victims.
Teen courts have been proven to reduce the rate of recidivism (the tendency of a criminal to reoffend) significantly. This is achieved through the power of peer influence. A study done in Alaska demonstrated that the use of teen courts as compared to the traditional juvenile justice system showed that recidivism rates for the teen court were at 6%. However, in juvenile court, almost a quarter committed another crime. Teen court is potentially life-changing for these teens, as often completion of sanctions results in their criminal record being wiped clean. This gives them the ability to go to college and get jobs without a record hurting their chances.
Teen courts are an important community resource, but to function, they need dedicated and caring volunteers. If the opportunity interest you, find a teen court near you here.
Eve is an avid writer based in the Sunshine State. She enjoys reading, writing, playing with her cats, and participating in Mock Trial. In the future, she plans to go to law school to pursue a career as a district attorney.