Students seek second chances through teen court
Where only first names appear, names have been changed to protect the identities of the sources.
When Sarah, a senior, was caught shoplifting a Coach purse from Lord & Taylor, she thought her record would be permanently tarnished. But because of a group of 10 teens she had never met before, the mistake she made almost a year ago will remain only a glitch in her past.
Sarah's criminal record will never resurface, thanks to the Montgomery County Teen Court — a juvenile justice system for first-time offenders that affords 12- to 17-year-olds who admit guilt a second chance to learn from their mistakes without blemishing their records. Teen Court is a unique justice system run by teens, for teens, with 1,200 youth courts nationwide. Since its establishment in 1996, the Montgomery County Teen Court has handled the cases of approximately 2,000 youth respondents.
Sarah's participation in Teen Court has made her one of the growing number of Blair students involved in the program, either as offenders or as members of the court system. Teen Court offers minors a chance to correct their errors and redirect their lives away from crime before they face the consequences as adults.
The price of crime
Sarah began shoplifting with her friends at the beginning of her junior year, stealing polo shirts, belts, purses and other items at a whirlwind pace. Her illegal behavior escalated when she and her friends brought scissors into stores to cut off sensors and put the items into empty shopping bags they had brought along. Soon, they were shoplifting on a weekly basis, even skipping school to go to the mall.
After Sarah was caught on camera shoplifting from Lord & Taylor, she was brought in handcuffs to the Bethesda police station. When she was released from the station, Sarah finally realized the gravity of her offenses.
Sarah's close encounter with the juvenile justice system was a lengthy ordeal. After facing a civil suit with Lord & Taylor, Sarah could not return to any of its affiliated stores for a year and had to pay double the price of the Coach purse she had stolen. She was also required to meet with a social worker and participate in six weeks of therapy. Because she told the social worker that she drank alcohol at parties, she had to attend drug classes, and on top of everything else, Sarah was sent to Teen Court to face criminal charges.
Sarah's nerves were shot when she entered the Rockville courthouse. In the courtroom, she had to defend her character in front of an adult judge, a teen jury and a gallery of strangers. Once she pleaded her case, Sarah was asked a litany of questions and then waited while the jury of her peers deliberated her sentence behind closed doors. Teen Court's use of a jury of teenagers is premised upon the theory that young offenders will care more about their peers' opinions than those of adults, says Teen Court coordinator Georgine DuBord. In addition, the program acts as a deterrent against criminal behavior by exposing the teen jury to the ramifications of their peers' illegal conduct, she says.
Members of this teen jury often include Blazers who have served as jury members during field trips or because of an outside interest in law. Both senior Lamar Smith, who participated through his Law class, and senior Will Tao, who was a juror for one-and-a-half years, agree that the hardest part of being a juror is deciding on fair punishments.
According to Tao, the system has some flaws. He notes that, occasionally, jurors give lesser punishments to offenders whom they consider attractive. Also, some teenage jurors have trouble leaving their preexisting biases concerning race and socio-economic status at the courtroom door, says Tao. Since the majority of jurors are from upcounty schools, Tao has noticed that downcounty or minority students sometimes receive harsher punishments than other teens.
But does it work?
Although Teen Court teaches the jury about the inner workings of the justice system, its main focus is on preventing those on trial from committing future crimes. The likelihood that teens will re-offend is only eight to nine percent, according to DuBord, which makes the program over seven times more effective a deterrent for teens than the traditional justice system, according to an "American School Board Journal" article titled "Learning Behind Bars" by Susan Black.
Due to his experience in Teen Court, sophomore Zach Brown plans not to be a part of the eight to nine percent that re-offend. When Brown was caught by a security guard with marijuana on Blair grounds after school one day, he worried for months about the consequences of his actions. Teen Court sentenced him to 23 hours of community service and drug classes and required him to write a letter of apology to his mom. Brown felt that his sentence was appropriate because he believes that it is unfair to give a first-time offender a serious juvenile record. After becoming more aware of the legal consequences of criminal offenses through Teen Court, Brown has kept clean since his arrest.
Teen Court offers first-time offenders the chance to amend their criminal patterns without entering the crowded juvenile justice system in which they may be overlooked. Those who are very young, first-time offenders or are charged with very minor crimes often receive more attention and intervention from Teen Courts than from the traditional juvenile justice system, says Jeff Butts, a research fellow at the University of Chicago who has done groundbreaking research with a focus on the Teen Court system, in an e-mail interview.
In retrospect, Sarah is glad that she was arrested and lucky enough to go through the Teen Court system. "I needed to get caught to stop because shoplifting is so addictive," she says. Sarah no longer shoplifts despite the fact that her friends still do it often. "The whole process scared the [expletive] out of me. I would have had to tell colleges and jobs about the stupid mistake I had made," reflects Sarah.
Although Teen Court was successful for curbing Sarah's behaviors, one major flaw that Sarah sees in the Teen Court system is that many of the punishments, referred to as dispositions, have no significant effect on the respondents. Sarah was sentenced to participate in the Youth Education about Shoplifting program, where she was supposed to pay for and listen to a CD about theft and go to a program where she was tested on the material. Sarah passed even though she never listened to the CD.
Eric, a senior, also found the program ineffective. Even though he was caught with marijuana by the police in a Silver Spring parking garage and went through Teen Court, he hasn't changed his lifestyle. Eric was sentenced to 30 community service hours, an essay on the effects of marijuana, drug classes and a tour of the Montgomery County Detention Center. None of this altered his attitudes on drug use, and he continues to smoke marijuana today.
But Sarah and Brown have seen Teen Court as what it was meant to be: a learning experience and a wakeup call. They have chosen to reevaluate their illegal actions and make changes to their lifestyles. There can be no more mistakes or bad judgment calls. They know that another offense will land them in a far less forgiving courtroom.
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