One question confronting North Carolina’s criminal justice system more and more is: What should we do for a 16-or-17-year-old who genuinely makes a mistake, learned a lesson and most likely will never make that mistake again? This year the “Raise the Age” bill (HB 725) was written to take care of these exceptional kids — but it also gives a free pass to kids who are multiple repeat offenders and have become all too familiar with the court system.
Fortunately, North Carolina already has a system that addresses kids who may not fit the definition of an at-risk juvenile, yet need to be held accountable for their actions. Teen Court is a diversion program for first-time, low-level misdemeanor offenders. It capitalizes on the positive effects of peer pressure. Except for the judge and assisting Assistant District Attorneys, all participants in the courtroom are teens acting as clerks, bailiffs, attorneys, and jurors. The jurors have had their cases heard previously by the Teen Court. The defendant’s parents/guardians must be involved in the process, just as in a juvenile court.
The court can impose fines, community service, counseling, and classes. Another often-used tactic is for the at-risk juveniles to write apology letters to the parties involved. The child is then able to link the crime to the behavior.
All participants in Teen Court will be required to honor the confidentiality of the proceedings and the names or identities of the youths. To participate, volunteers must make a time commitment and attend training.
Fifty-three counties in North Carolina have some version of a Teen Court. Some courts are funded by the Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (DJJDP) or the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council (JCPC). Other Teen Courts may be funded by schools, fundraisers, local grants, foundations, volunteers, Communities in Schools, or the United Way. While in some counties courts are funded by the state government, not all of them are.
Whether or not a county has a Teen Court is based partially on juvenile crime rates in the county. Another factor may be whether there is an organization willing to step up and sponsor the court. There must be a strong relationship with the juvenile court or district court with a partnering agency like the JCPC.
The News & Observer recently did an article on a Robeson County Teen Court and how it has impacted the community. Robeson County also has done a YouTube video about what theirs looks like.
Some of the qualifications to be able to go to Teen Court are that you are in school, have not been to Teen Court before, have been referred by someone (DA, resource officer, or school), and are charged with a low-level offense. These are the kids that we need to protect — not the ones who are continually breaking laws and committing heinous offenses.
When legislation is introduced that implies North Carolina is not looking out for the kids who are not at-risk juveniles, there seems to be a lack of education about what North Carolina already does do for kids who are in the wrong place at the wrong time. The Teen Court system gives the opportunity for each juvenile’s case to be looked at and placed in the right court system. The program empowers all youth to work on ways to reduce crime, give back to their community, and them responsible for their actions.