Shows like Bel-Air, Cruel Summer, Euphoria, Pretty Little Liars, and Riverdale make it seem like every young person’s first run-in with the law is a dramatic scene resulting from a high-level offense. But these incidents rarely reflect the average teen’s first experience with law enforcement, nor do they explore the opportunities for teens to empower themselves within the court system.
The most common first-time offenses are related to age: crimes like truancy, underage drinking, and running away from home. In 2018, the Department of Justice reported that the next escalation of juvenile offenses were in four categories: property, public order, person, and drug violation. These are largely encompassed by fights, graffiti, shoplifting, trespassing, and possession of drugs or drug paraphernalia. They are minor charges according to most state laws, but can begin a cycle in the system unless teens have the right knowledge and guidance to pivot.
One way to do so is through Youth Court, a diversion program meant to steer young offenders away from the traditional juvenile justice system. It gives teens the option to participate in court proceedings — a hearing, trial, and sentencing — with a jury of youth peers instead of adults. Peers who volunteer for these programs receive credit for community service hours, mentorship from licensed attorneys, and training for the roles of prosecution, defense, jurors, and bailiffs. The goal is to bring teens together to create a sense of positive community and opportunities to course correct early on.
“The first youth court programs grew out of efforts by the American Bar Association and other national and community organizations to hold youth accountable for their actions before they develop a pattern of law-breaking behavior,” the Judicial Council of California reported in February 2021.
“The wins in this program are unparalleled. Rates of compliance with teen court dispositions generally are high; rates of recidivism are low,” Deborah Williamson, former general manager of juvenile services for the Kentucky Court of Justice, wrote.
This kind of program offers an invaluable opportunity for teens to develop the confidence to successfully navigate the court system in the future – to benefit themselves, their loved ones, or their future clients if they pursue a career in law. Young offenders not only get the chance to change their criminal records, but to continue their education and seek positive outlets. It empowers teens to take accountability for their actions and fosters empathy from peers, who may have a better understanding of the reasons behind early mistakes.
“We’ve come, I think even just this year, a long way instead of just sentencing them, to really getting down to the personal problem,” Brittany Thompson, a graduate of Spearfish High School in South Dakota and three-year Teen Court participant, said.
To find a Youth Court Program near you, check out the National Association of Youth Courts state list, which includes resources on how to start one in your city, or search online for local programs.
Want to know more about how it works? Check out these training videos and resources from the West Virginia Teen Court Association: Youth Court 101.