Newest Teen Court Helps West Michigan Youths
Pilot program saves money, involves students and reduces recidivism
by Mary Radigan
June 16, 2010
The six young jurors listen carefully as the judge explains their responsibilities during the hearing that is about to take place in Teen Court.
“This is a very serious matter and you must be attentive and do what is fair and just,” the judge says. “The respondent has voluntarily agreed to be here and that takes a lot of courage.”
The jurors, all high school students, listen to a few more instructions, then take a confidentiality oath. They approach their work seriously, and are ready to begin.
The 16-year-old upon whom they are about to pass judgment has admitted guilt to smoking marijuana and lying to police about his possession of the illegal substance. But instead of being prosecuted through the juvenile court system, where he could have done jail time and ended up with a permanent record, this first-time offender was offered the opportunity to participate in an alternative justice program.
This Kent County pilot program started last October through the collaborative efforts of Thomas M. Cooley Law School’s Grand Rapids campus, Kent County Family Court and the nonprofit Carter-Alexander Institute for Law and Justice. It joins 14 similar projects throughout Michigan and is patterned after Teen Court Lansing, which serves Ingham County.
According to the National Association of Youth Courts, there are more than 1,100 youth court operations in 49 states and the District of Columbia.
The basic idea is to work with family court intake officers and decide if a first-time offender will benefit from what is called restorative justice. The participant is between ages 11 and 16 and admits responsibility for such crimes as shoplifting, trespassing, vandalism, theft, minor in possession, marijuana use or other illegal activities.
The prosecutor’s office and Teen Court officials meet with parents, and the child must take responsibility for the offense. The offender agrees to a hearing before his or her peers, who determine an alternative sentence. There’s no jail time, and if the offender complies with the jury’s final disposition orders, the record is expunged.
In this case, the jury consists of juniors and seniors from government classes at East Grand Rapids High School. They have been through a jury training class and learned about the process and their responsibilities. Jurors are encouraged to remove “punishment” from their vocabulary and deliver a sentence from which the offender will learn and correct bad behavior.
Back in the courtroom, the charges are read by the teenage court clerk. The offender explains what happened and tells the jury he hasn’t touched marijuana since his arrest. He has taken Teen Court Street Law classes on substance abuse (part of a series of classes developed through the Carter-Alexander Institute for Law and Justice), undergone drug testing, avoids drug-using friends and performs community service at a local ministry for the homeless.
His parents testify that they hold family discussions several times a week to reinforce and encourage the teen’s progress. School grades have improved and serving as a volunteer has opened the boy’s eyes to where he could be headed.
The father tells the jury about the family’s extreme embarrassment and disappointment in his son’s illegal activities, but expresses optimism in the progress made so far. “We’ve made many changes and there’s more supervision on our part,” he adds. “It will take time to rebuild our trust, but he’s made great strides and this [program] is a godsend.”
The session is not open to the public because the deliberations involve a minor. No attorneys are involved at this point because the offender already has pleaded guilty.
After 20 minutes of deliberations under the guidance of a Cooley law student, the jury decides the offender must continue with the changes he’s started in his life, as well as complete weekly phone progress reports and bi-weekly school progress reports to his Teen Court advocate. The family must also pay a $50 fee.
Sponsors say Teen Court is important because it intervenes before the offender ends up in the formal justice system. It places participants in front of their peers, who often are tougher on them than a criminal justice official. The teen jurors get involved in a hands-on experience, which can act as a deterrent and an inspiration for their own lives, while law students get a better understanding of their connection with the community and the important role they can play.
From October through May, the monthly hearings dealt with 32 participants, with 10 youths successfully completing their judgments so far. That includes attending the Street Law sessions and, depending on the offense, volunteer work, letters of apology, restitution to the victim, participation in counseling services and conflict resolution classes, regular school progress reports, compliance with boundaries set by family and Teen Court, and regular drug tests.
In addition, some offenders are required to serve as a peer juror.
“We don’t want to give up on these kids in this part of their lives,” says Tracey Brame, assistant dean at Cooley in Grand Rapids and a lawyer who acts as one of the judges for Teen Court hearings. “They are questioned by their peers and that pressure is very powerful. It is very uncomfortable for them to sit and explain what and why they did what they did.”
Mike Dunn, an adjunct professor at Cooley and the attorney liaison between the school and the juvenile court system, says they want to keep the program’s momentum going once the pilot project is completed next year.
Dunn, Brame and Anna Rapa, executive director of the Institute, were the leaders in developing Kent County’s Teen Court program. They receive no outside funding, with Dunn and Rapa volunteering their time and talent. Private and public schools were canvassed to train and recruit interested students as jurors, and six schools signed on. The program ended temporarily in May along with the school year.
“We don’t have the resources to continue through the summer and we’re working on grants and talking to other organizations to see if there’s a way to collaborate,” Brame says. “We’re working to develop a structure to follow and we need to hire someone and figure out who will run the program.”
Eventually, sponsors will use volunteer law students as advocates and mentors.
“We want to demonstrate our success to get funding in the future,” Rapa says. “We’ve had nothing but positive feedback from participants and parents because they’re glad to get a second chance. It gives them a chance to think about [the offense] and how it affects the victim and community.”
Dunn would like to develop a Teen Court informational video for the community, and eventually get actual judges and courtrooms for hearings. Dunn also is working with prosecutors to increase the kind of charges acceptable for Teen Court, such as “sexting” — the delivery of sexually explicit photos or messages primarily through cell phones — and the possible consequences.
“Teen Court is a brilliant program that is just as good for educating the jury and getting teens involved as it is for the respondents who learn about street justice in a good way and leave without a record,” Dunn adds.
Doug Gaddy, intake supervisor for the Family Division of Kent County Circuit Court, says Teen Court is an additional resource for his office’s juvenile justice diversion programs. His staff reviews the circumstances behind each case before sending it to Teen Court.
The diversion programs don’t cost the county money, other than Gaddy’s staff’s time — unlike the formal justice system, with judges, lawyers and jail sentences. Grants, donations, fees and other funding sources are the key, Gaddy adds.
“It’s a little more intense because in Teen Court they have to do more,” he adds. “It’s valuable and different because they are accountable to other teens and that makes their response different. It’s easier to snowball an adult then their peers, and they’re less likely to cop an attitude.”
If the offender does not comply with the Teen Court orders, the case goes back to prosecutors for review and possible formal disposition before a judge.
That doesn’t happen often in Lansing’s Teen Court, according to Mike Botke, its fulltime director. Close to 300 offenders have completed the program each year since its pilot began in 2000. The success rate is close to 90 percent.
“All these cases have been reviewed, and those kids did not show up in the system again,” he adds. “The recidivism rate we have is less than 10 percent.”
Another 700 to 800 teens from Ingham County high schools are trained each year to serve as jurors, bailiffs and clerks. Lansing is able to conduct its Teen Court year-round because of a variety of funding sources for its $150,000 budget and ongoing student interest. As in Grand Rapids, Cooley provides office space, courtrooms, volunteers and technical assistance.
Lansing Teen Court began as part of then-Mayor David Hollister’s Drug Free Youth Task Force. In 2008 it became a program of Child & Family Services–Capital Area, and has the support of local and county courts, nonprofit organizations and other Ingham County community partners.
“If it wasn’t for the in-kind services from Cooley and all the volunteer effort, we couldn’t do this,” said Botke, who hopes to raise funds for a fulltime education coordinator to increase the organization’s 2.5 staff positions.
In Kent County, East Kentwood High School was the first to volunteer, with 30 students out of various criminal law and government classes eager to get involved as jurors, says Hillary Baker, a teacher in the school’s special studies department. Six area schools were involved in Teen Court this first year.
“We had a very diverse group of kids interested, and I felt that it was incredibly important,” Baker says. “This gets the kids involved and shows them the stake they can have in getting involved in the community.”
Baker says some of her students have expressed interest in pursuing law-related classes in college and that in post-hearing discussions, students and parents said participation raised awareness as to how choices and the consequences can make a difference in their lives.
“We’ve seen the recidivism rate in Ingham County and know that [the offenders] are less likely to continue in criminal behaviors,” she adds. “I would love to see the Kent County program grow and show that teen involvement really can make a difference.”
Mary Radigan is an award-winning journalist whose work includes 26 years as a columnist and reporter for The Grand Rapids Press until her retirement in 2007.