Teen courts help to keep kids out of juvenile court system

Teen courts help to keep kids out of juvenile court system

(Calif.) In mock courtrooms supervised by a local judge, first-time teen offenders face a jury of their peers and receive sentences that often keep them in school and out of the juvenile justice system for minor crimes.

Combined with other statewide efforts such as promoting restorative justice techniques in schools and eliminating zero tolerance policies, youth courts are helping to reduce the number of incarcerated teens in California charged with minor crimes.

“We catch these kids early, and it’s making a difference,” David Wesley, a Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge who founded the first teen court in L.A. 25 years ago, said in a statement. “We are incarcerating fewer kids, and saving millions of dollars keeping them out of the juvenile justice system.”

With the United States still leading the industrialized world in youth incarceration rates, California is among the top 12 states with the highest rates–locking up 271 youth offenders per 100,000 people under the age of 21, according to a 2013 report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation and advocacy group Children Now. On the flip side, researchers found that the number of kids behind bars has decreased more than 40 percent since 1995, with numbers continuing to decline.

Much of the decline can likely be attributed to a reduction in zero tolerance policies in schools, which research has shown contributes to the school to prison pipeline that pushes children out of school, where they eventually come into contact with the juvenile justice system. Throughout the country districts have expanded restorative justice programs, social-emotional learning initiatives and teen courts.

There are currently 75 youth courts in California and more than 1,400 nationwide. They act as an alternative approach to the traditional juvenile justice system, and allow teens to forgo the hearing and sentencing procedures of juvenile court if they agree to a hearing with a jury of their peers, and return to serve as jurors on future cases.

Under a judge’s guidance, these courts aim to hold youth offenders charged with minor offences accountable, while repairing harm to victims and the community through handing out sentences of community service, letters of apology and treatment programs such as counseling or alcohol rehabilitation.

Prior youth defendants and teen volunteers play the roles of district attorney or public defender, as well as jury members, which advocates of the system say promotes civic participation. Court officials say youth courts help ease court caseloads by keeping low-level offenders out of the system, and reduce the number of students who re-offend because teens tend to respond more to disapproval from peers than adult authority figures.

Studies have long shown that students who enter the juvenile justice system have significantly worse economic outcomes than those who have not been incarcerated, which is in turn associated with lower levels of mental well-being, physical health, social attachments, and a lower life expectancy. Additionally, up to one-third of incarcerated youth return to jail or prison within a few years after release. 

Richard Couzens, a retired Placer County Superior Court Judge who helped launch one of the first two youth courts in the state in 1990, said that teen courts allow for younger offenders to be held accountable without them getting caught up in the system.

“We are diverting kids who should be diverted from the juvenile justice system–that lowers our caseload so we can focus on more serious offenders,” Couzens said in a statement. “It holds them appropriately accountable, but it doesn’t brand them an offender for life.”