Friday, April 10, 2015

Teen Courts: A Call for Accountability

Teen courts, also known as youth courts or peer courts, are not new phenomena.  Since the 1970s, over 800 teen courts have popped up around the nation; the majority were created in response to the United States Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s (OJJDP) push for alternative juvenile programs in the 1990s.  While the court itself varies between four models, discussed below, jurisdictions across the country use teen courts to address the same types of offenders and crimes: first-time offenders, aged 11-17, who have been accused of misdemeanors such as theft, vandalism, underage drinking, disorderly conduct, assault, possession of marijuana, tobacco violations, and curfew violations.  Because the teen court is offered as an alternative to going through the juvenile justice system, the accused typically have to admit guilt prior to admittance to the program.  

Once an individual’s case has been assigned to the teen court, the individual is tried in one of four ways, dependent on the jurisdiction:

-Adult judge: used by over half the courts, this model utilizes an adult judge while the roles of defense attorney, prosecuting attorney, and jurors are filled by youths

-Youth judge: this model is similar to the adult judge model, except that the judge is a youth instead of an adult

-Youth tribunal: this model does not have any youth jurors; instead, youth attorneys present the case in front of a youth judge or judges

-Peer jury: this model does not have any youth attorneys or judges; instead, the facts of the case are presented by a single presenter to a panel of youths who interrogate the defendant directly

Regardless of the model, teen courts assign a variety of sentences to youth, including: fines, community service, payments of restitution, mandatory attendance of workshops, and formal apologies to the victims of the crime. Failure to comply usually leads to the case being transferred to the traditional juvenile justice system.

While there has been praise for the program, there is a lack of scholarship available on teen courts.  More studies are needed to determine how effective teen courts are at lowering recidivism rates, as well as the long-term dynamic between offenders and their peers who are placed in authoritative positions in the teen court.  Relatively few studies have been conducted on the effectiveness of these teen courts as an alternative to traditional juvenile jurisdiction. Given that the programs have existed on a large scale since the 1990s, it is surprising that there have not been more longitudinal studies conducted on the teen courts’ effectiveness of lowering recidivism, or any current studies conducted about the program.  Of the studies available on teen courts, the majority fail to state the demographics of the participants in the program.  Currently, boys make up 70% of youth arrested, with Black males disproportionately represented. However, the studies on teen courts rarely provide us with the demographics of who, in terms of demographics, gets offered this alternative.

The studies available on teen courts also fail to identify who is making up the peers of the teen court.  Jeffrey Butts and Jennifer Ortiz state that “[t]een courts are believed to reduce recidivism by tapping the power of positive peer influence.  Adolescents crave peer acceptance and peer approval.  The teen court process takes advantage of this naturally powerful incentive.  Just as association with deviant or delinquent peers is commonly associated with the onset of delinquent behavior, pressure from pro-social peers may propel youth toward law-abiding behavior.” However, what this theory of restorative justice fails to acknowledge is how the demographic differences between an individual going through the court system and his/her peers who are on the teen court could affect how the individual feels that pressure.  A 2008 study conducted by Stickle and colleagues found that the individuals subjected to the teen court system actually experienced a higher rate of delinquency behavior than those who went through the traditional juvenile court system. The authors of the studies suggest that youth who go through the teen court “may be embarrassed by peers witnessing the experience” or that “the program may succeed at shaming but not at reintegrating youths.”

While the Stickle study is not necessarily representative of all teen courts (small and non-diverse sample), more studies need to be similarly conducted on the effects of teen court on the youths who navigate it.  Because youth arrested for crimes are already at-risk, the real possibility of public shaming from peers needs to be evaluated in order to determine if teen court is actually a better alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system.

In the meantime, attorneys who deal with juveniles and the criminal justice system should be aware of these courts and their unevaluated status.  Though these courts are offered as a positive alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system, defense attorneys should really weigh the potential negative consequences of going through the court before picking it as the course of action.  As stated before, in order for a juvenile to qualify for teen court, s/he must declare guilt for the crime charged.  There is also the potential damaging embarrassment the juvenile may face and the likelihood that s/he will be sentenced to some kind of work, as opposed to the possibility of the judge giving just a warning, which is sometimes the course of action in the traditional juvenile system with regard to first time offenders.  Attorneys need to keep these thoughts in mind when handling a first time offender.
Mary Soule
Senior Staffer, Criminal Law Practitioner
Picture by Rondal Partridge via Wikimedia Commons


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  4. Child, Youth and Adult are three stage of a human life. But youth stage is the best time of life, on the other hand it is the crucial time for danger. Teen or youth court is the only for them whose are youth. BS/MD programs