Teen Court, an Innovative Way to Address Juvenile Justice Issues

By Alana Glover,  CFCC Student Fellow (2018-2019)

As a Student Fellow in  the University of Baltimore School of Law’s Sayra and Neil Meyerhoff Center for Families, Children and the Courts’ (CFCC) Student Fellows Program, we think critically about how families are affected by the legal system. We think in depth about therapeutic jurisprudence and the role that it plays in problem-solving courts, as well as the effects that problem-solving courts have on the community. There are many different problem-solving courts, including teen courts, veteran’s courts, mental health courts, domestic violence courts, and drug  treatment courts. On October 4th,  I observed Teen Court, which is a problem-solving court specifically geared towards juvenile offenders.

The Maryland Youth & the Law (MYLAW) initiative operates the Baltimore City Teen Court.  MYLAW was established in 1975 to teach Maryland youth about the law and legal system, and to provide youth in the community greater access to justice. The Teen Court program is unique because it allows teenagers to be judged by a group of their peers and offers them an opportunity to participate in the justice system as defendants and prosecutors. Youth in the community serve as the jury and fact finders in cases where  juveniles are being tried for misdemeanor offenses.

The Baltimore City Teen Court receives most of its cases from the Baltimore City Police Department and Baltimore City School Police. Participation in Teen Court is completely voluntary.  By agreeing to participate, a youth’s case is diverted from the Department of Juvenile Services (DJS).  While participating in Teen Court, a case is  placed “on hold,” pending completion of any teen court requirements.  It is important to note that in order for a youth to participate in Teen Court, he/she must admit to his/her involvement and accept responsibility for the offense which led to the arrest or referral. Additionally, after the youth attends the hearing, he/she must complete all of the sanctions imposed by the Teen Court jury and judge. If the youth complies with all of his/her obligations, the case will be considered closed by DJS.  Teen Court offers juveniles the opportunity to participate in a court that is focused on therapeutic jurisprudence rather than simple punishment that can lead to the youth becoming engulfed by the criminal justice system at an early age.

According to an article by Professors Barbara A. Babb and David B. Wexler, “Therapeutic jurisprudence is the study of the role of law as a therapeutic agent by serving as a lens that focuses on the law ‘s impact on an individual’s emotional and psychological well-being.” Barbara A. Babb & David B. Wexler, Encyclopedia of Criminology and Criminal Behavior (Gerben Bruinsma & David Weisburd, 2014). The article explains how the law can act as a healing or therapeutic agent, which is what I witnessed during my observation of  a Teen Court. In the case I observed a youth who had been charged with a minor offense presented his argument to a jury of his peers. What I found most  interesting about the process was the teenage jury deliberations on the matter. Similar to a traditional court, the Teen Court has a minimum number of community service hours that can be imposed as a sentence, depending on the offense committed. However, in the case I observed, the jury decided not to add additional community service hours after considering factors such as the youth being a junior in high school who already had to complete service hours  for graduation and the youth’s lack of support at home. The teen jury also decided that what would be most helpful to the youthful offender would be to provide him with a mentor. The teens in the jury considered factors that a judge, who might be three times older than the offender, may not have considered.

The opportunity to observe a system that works in a meaningful way to provide justice while stopping the school-to-prison pipeline was an amazing experience. The only issue I could see with Teen Court would be the lack of funding.  With greater funding, the court could increase its capacity. Teen Court is an exemplary problem-solving court that changes juveniles’ lives in a positive way in comparison to the traditional court system, that simply focuses on punishment.

4 thoughts on “Teen Court, an Innovative Way to Address Juvenile Justice Issues

  1. Thank you for sharing this, Alana! During the jury deliberations that you observed, what types of questions were asked?

    • Thanks for the question Meegan! During the deliberations the teens asked very interesting questions. They asked about the seriousness of the crime and what would be the best punishment.

      For example, they also asked about the youth’s career goals. The youth at trial wanted to pursue a more traditional career rather than focusing on pursuing a career that requires higher education. The law students who typically volunteer with the youth on a weekly basis explained that simply because a student does not want to pursue a career that requires a degree from a higher education institution, does not mean they will not be successful.

      The youth also discussed the community service allotment. After talking among themselves, they decided it was over-excessive to add additional community service hours. Knowing that the youth already had additional hours that they had to complete in order to graduate from high school in Baltimore City.

      I hope that this answers your question!

  2. Wow – the teen jury really engaged in an insightful analysis of the Defendant’s circumstances. I’m hopeful and anticipate these youths will continue to positively impact our community. Thanks for sharing this!

  3. Great post Alana!
    I wonder if the Teen Court Program offers a Mentor list or pairing service for the youth in the program.I think when it comes to juvenile offenders, having a mentor can have a large impact for finding a new path or direction to take in life to get results they can be proud of. Thoughts?

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