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.