We all make mistakes, but not all of us are given a second chance. A program in McCracken County is offering first time teen offenders that opportunity. This chance to wipe the slate clean is processed through a legitimate court, but under slightly different circumstances—Teen Court.
The program’s premise is that if peer pressure can be used as a negative influence it can also be utilized as a positive force.
“Teen Court is a sentencing court, meaning the juvenile defendants have admitted to having committed an offense and receive their diversion (think 'sentence') from the Teen Court jury. The type of offenses our Teen Court program hears varies: shoplifting, substance abuse, harassing communications, terroristic threatening, assault, and disorderly conduct,” says Teen Court Coordinator Eve Silverstein. Silverstein volunteered for the program after her eldest daughter was a participant.
“Any teen, countywide is eligible to participate. The teens and parents are made aware at the first training session that juvenile proceedings are confidential...Only the teen court members, the judge, defendant, defendant's family, and myself are allowed in the courtroom. It can be very different for parents who may be very involved with their child's activities,” says Silverstein.
According to the Kentucky Court of Justice website, the state has more than 1,200 students participating in the program. But before teens begin to hear actual cases they must attend five training sessions and a swearing in ceremony. “I have 24 members on the McCracken County Teen Court this year. Of those, seven are first time participants. The rest have returned for their second, third, or fourth year,” says Silverstein. Each member is rotated through the various roles of the court: prosecutor, defense attorney, clerk, bailiff, and jury members. The participants are also familiarised with courtroom etiquette and language. Silverstein says it is a “real eye opener” for many of the members.
“Teenagers are capable of just what is expected of them. If the expectation is that they are irresponsible slackers that is what they will be,” says Silverstein.
Chelsea Morgan is a senior at McCracken County High School. She is finishing her fourth year as a member of Teen Court.
“Teen Court has taught me responsibility and accountability. It has also been an enjoyable way to obtain community service hours. It has taught me the importance of diversity, and being active in your community, even in a small town like Paducah,” says Morgan. Paducah Tilghman Senior Logan Bakehouse “stumbled on to the program” by looking at a schedule in his guidance counselor’s office. He joined because he thought it would give him a better look at the legal system. Bakehouse says sentencing teen offenders provides them with “a more fair trial” because their peers do it, and they have tendency to be able to relate.
“The process of sentencing is like asking a bunch of people where they want to eat. We look at the suggestions from both the prosecution and the defense as a base line. From there we give our own input as to what we believe should be the sentence [...] once we all make sure everyone agrees with the over all sentence we submit it,” says Bakehouse.
The teens are trusted with confidential defendant information and rise to challenges presented with each case according to Silverstein. While she coordinates, it is District Judge Tony Kitchen who has overall accountability for the Teen Court operation. He says it is an honor to teach the teens, especially as they reflect an unexpected level of maturity.
“I have learned that they are capable of being compassionate when appropriate and unforgiving when it is called for. I have been very pleasantly surprised by their ability to do the right thing when deciding sentences. They think for themselves,” says Kitchen.
Most offenses are met with community service sanctions and formal apologies. Judge Kitchen believes when peers sentence an offending juvenile it has a greater impact.
“Teen Court is not about preparing kids to be lawyers, although it may light a fire in some of them to want to go to law school. It teaches community involvement, critical thinking, and self-expression. Those are things that will help them later in whatever field they choose. For the juvenile offenders, hopefully having their peers assign a sentence will make a large enough impression upon them that they will choose to obey the law,” says Kitchen.
The system must leave an impression, as Teen Courts across the country report that the offenders who successfully complete their sentencing and avoid a formal court record often return voluntarily to be participants in Teen Court program.