Teen Courts Catching On Across the Nation

Nancy Traver
November 1, 1996

Communities from Alaska to Florida are quietly adopting a new approach to combat juvenile delinquency and empower young people that seems to work: teen courts.

Staffed by adolescents who take the roles of judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense attorneys, teen courts – also known as youth courts and peer courts – are designed primarily for first-time minor offenders caught shoplifting, possessing alcohol or drugs, truancy, fighting, decorating the neighborhood with graffiti, or arrested for minor traffic violations.

They serve a dual purpose – as a mechanism to hold youthful offenders accountable, and to educate the participants in the workings of the legal system, which also can be a deterrent to delinquency.

Despite being ignored by federal and foundation national funders, the number of teen courts has mushroomed since 1994 from about 75 – many of them in Texas where they originated at Grand Prairie in 1976 – to more than 280 in 31 states and D.C. All by word of mouth, says Tracy Godwin of the American Probation and Parole Association (APPA) who surveyed the country to produce the first-ever guide on how to start up a teen court. (see page 19.)

“As more people hear about them, interest in teen courts has grown tremendously,” Godwin said in accounting for the rapid spread of programs. What makes them so attractive?

Teen courts are cheap (the average cost is only $35,000 per year); parents, judges, police chiefs, and youth workers tend to agree they are helpful in straightening out many different kinds of youth — plus they relieve the case loads of juvenile courts. Most important, teen courts appear to be effective. Although no national evaluations have as yet been conducted, many local programs say their recidivism rate for youth charged with an offense is only 5 percent.

Indeed, it's difficult to find anyone who is critical of the teen court concept. So why aren't more state agencies — not to mention the federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) - pushing them harder?

An Evaluation—When?

Shay Bilchik, administrator of OJJDP, says the federal government is in fact supporting the teen court movement — but OJJDP is not exactly rolling out a bandwagon, like it has for boot camps. There is, for example, no mention of teen courts as an early intervention technique in OJJDP's 1995 Guide for Implementing the Comprehensive Strategy For Serious, Violent, and Chronic Juvenile Offenders. And the agency has not tried to drum up publicity to spread the teen court gospel.

Currently, all OJJDP has done is join the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration in the APPA grant to publish the teen court how-to manual. APPA offers training courses and technical assistance to local entities under the grant. A few jurisdictions also are using part of the $20 million in federal Juvenile Justice Act Title V prevention funds to pay teen court operating expenses.

What's needed to promote the concept nationally, say advocates, is a comprehensive evaluation of the various forms of teen court to show which type may suit a community best. Such an undertaking is still on OJJDP’s horizon.

Bilchik said his agency has solicited a field-initiated study on teen courts and the project is now under peer review. "In 1997, we could do a more full-scale project with teen courts, but we have to see the outcome of the study. We can't really say what we'll do yet," he said.

How Courts Work

Teen court programs can vary in certain details, but they all have some features in common. Teen court is an alternative to juvenile court. While a few of the courts actually try cases to determine guilt or innocence, most act more as a sentencing hearing to set a defendant's penalty. As a condition for appearing in these courts the young offender must first enter a guilty plea and agree to carry out a sentence imposed by an all-teen jury.

In return, the defendant's record is wiped clean. If he or she refuses to meet those conditions, the case is sent to juvenile court.

Also, teen court is not open to the hardened chronic law breaker. Only minor offenses are heard, including Class C misdemeanors and traffic citations. Thomas Moore, coordinator of the Citrus County, Fla., teen court, says: “Teen court is for kids who are pretty much teetering on the lip of a funnel: as they start sliding down, it gets worse and worse and they start moving faster. We try to get them before they fall in."

As part of their sentence, teens generally are ordered to complete up to 50 hours of community service — shelving books at a city library, helping out at a nursing home, or fixing up an elderly resident's," house. They also may be ordered to serve as a teen court juror.

Some programs require more, Allison Huber, program director for the Greater Cleveland YMCA, says teens there must go on a "social event" such as putt-putt golf, bowling, or a trip to the zoo or an amusement park. They learn they can go out and have a decent time without getting into trouble. Plus, we get to talk to them a little more," Huber explained.

Some teen courts make sure defendants start talking to their parents, as well. In San Jose, Calif., teens are required to write a letter of apology to their parents. Says court coordinator Victor Barnett: "A letter gives some acknowledgment to the parents and their disappointment and shame – plus it starts up better communication between the teenager and his or her mom and dad.

Turning Point for Youth

Many young people form strong ties to teen court. David Chaffee, teen court director in Denver, says: "This is not a one-shot program. The kids come back week after week as jurors and they bond with the program. This helps them make the right decisions and stay out of trouble."

APPA’s Tracy Godwin tells of a 15-year-old Asheville, N.C., girl who recounted how she was hanging out with some guys shoplifting in stores. She didn't get caught but finally stopped when she served on a teen court and "learned about the consequences of doing wrong things."

It's this possibility of actually preventing crime that attracts interest in starting up a teen court. While no nationwide studies have been completed, many local teen courts boast they have steered tads away from trouble.

For example, during teen court's first year in operation in Hernandel County, Fla., officials documented a 15 percent decrease in juvenile crime. In Amarillo, Tex., teen court reports a 2 to 5 percent recidivism rate, compared to a 30 to 50 percent rate for the state's juvenile courts,

In Lake County, Ill., the recidivism rate in teen court is only 5 percent. In Albuquerque, N.M., only 20 teens among nearly 900 cases did not complete their sentences. Says Ed Sindles, police chief of the Round Lake Beach, Ill., Police Department: "Prevention is most effective at deterring crime — it's really where it's at."

Parents like it as well. Mary Beck, president of the Texas Teen Court Association, says one father told her teen court was the turning point in his son's life. Tammy Hawkins, teen court coordinator in Odessa, Tex., said: "We're teaching accountability and responsibility. That's most important to parents."

Nix Adult Judges

Youth workers directing teen court agree that they work because teens themselves form the backbone of the program, serving as jury, attorney, prosecutor, and, in some cases, even judge. As a police chief, Sindles says he used to watch kids go before a juvenile judge, receive only a slap on the wrist, then brag to friends how they beat the system. "But in teen court, there's nothing to brag about. You stand in front of a jury of six peers and they sentence you to 50 hours of community service."

Defendants get a chance to present their side, but a teen jury can often see right through lies or excuses. Phillip De La Rosa, community outreach director for the YMCA of Greater Houston, says: "Teens are wiser than the adult judge and better at meting out sentences. They know other teens — they know what they'll do."

De La Rosa, who oversees 64 teen courts in the Houston area and has been involved in teen courts for five years, believes the concept works best when teens serve as judges. "I've seen a juvenile judge refer a kid to teen court, and then the kid comes before the same adult judge in teen court. The kid is left wondering. 'Why am I back here — he's just gonna get me anyway."*

He's also seen adult judges reverse a sentence handed down by teens. "When that happens, the adult has taken away the empowerment of the teen." De La Rosa argues that a teen court run by a judge is simply designed for more judges to win re-election. "A teen court judge wins recognition and prestige and a lot of people learn his name. But the kids learn nothing."

Teen court helps the kid who is simply "average" — one who doesn't excel in academics or sports, who gets lost in the shuffle, De La Rosa feels, such teens are often being looked over for gang recruitment. “Teen court is an opportunity for that person to play a role in the school decision-making process. He can share in the glory and make a contribution to his school," he said.

Needed: Credibility

De La Rosa and others in the teen court movement believe the courts can be formed by the YMCA, a school district, a volunteer organization like the Junior League, or a group of Judges and lawyers. Others, like Anthony Aragon, Bernalillo County, N.M., teen court director in Albuquerque, say the courts need credibility.

Says Aragon: "I've heard it called teeny-weeny court — but not here. When we wanted to start up, we went to the second judicial district and became a division of district court. If a kid gets a letter from us, he'd better pay attention to it."

Saying he's heard about teen courts run by the local YMCA, Aragon asked. "What jurisdiction does the YMCA have? Our program has a lot more teeth."

But many directors say they have looked to the YMCA, school districts, foundations, the local bar association, or the Junior League to help found the local teen court. The reason: money. And when it comes to money, teen courts must take it where they can find it — typically at the very bottom of the anti-crime food chain. Even though many teen courts are run on a shoestring, counties, cities, and other agencies often withhold financial support — in the absence of hard scientific evidence that they are effective or because some other claimant for funds has the political muscle.

Mary Beck, president of the Texas Teen Court Association, observes, "You have to be creative in your fundraising because governments are in a cutback mode." She runs a teen court in Midland Tex. that qualifies as a non-profit organization. Because the Junior League will eventually phase out its funding, Beck has been turning to private foundations for help.

Varied Funding Sources

Some programs have run out of money and shut their doors. Denver's teen court operated part time for four years, courtesy of the local bar association. Then the city and county chipped in to pay for full-time operation, only to yank public support after a year. The program was scheduled to start up again full time this fall.

”The city still hasn't embraced teen court. It's a very new concept and people aren't sure of the outcome; they don't yet take it seriously," said the director, David Chaffee.

While many teen courts scramble for money, the teen courts in the upstate New York cities of Colonie and Buffalo have been more fortunate: both received funds through the federal Juvenile Justice Acts' Title V delinquency prevention grants to the state.

The Colonie youth court has a $60,000 annual budget, half of which goes to pay the salary of its director, Scott Peterson. The rest of Colonie's budget goes toward liability insurance, photocopying, postage, plaques for graduates, and other miscellaneous outlays.

Peterson explained that his teen court won its funding with the aid of the local U.S. Attorney who helped write the grant proposal and lobbied for it in Albany and Washington.

Few teen courts, however, are as financially fortunate as the one operating in San Francisco with an annual budget of $271,000. Director Calvinia Williams said $175,000 comes from the city and $68,000 from superior court. Local foundations contribute the rest. But San Francisco's court also offers more for the money: more staff and more counseling and 80 cooperating agencies for defendants to do their community service.

The staff checks these sites to verify youth are performing court-ordered work; defendants receive three hours of training in court procedures. Teen parents on welfare are steered into job training and receive periodic follow-up visits by court staff.

Here to Stay?

Most teen courts rely primarily on volunteer labor. In many Texas teen courts, the Junior League supplies a handful of women who help out every session.

Sometimes local entities provide in-kind support. In Citrus County, Fla., the sheriff’s department supplies a car for the teen court director, while the court clerk does the administrative work and keeps the books. Small donations help; one local police union anted up $100 for teen court.

Many directors caution that anyone who runs a teen court must wear the many hats of youth work: administrator, recorder, grant writer, group worker, therapist. Beck said she replaced two young co-directors in Texas who were good counselors but not good administrators. "You want to document everything so you can show you're effective. Judges who refer cases to teen court want to have confidence in you."

Making sure kids complete their community service is essential. Gary Dodson, teen court director in Beaverton, Ore., says, "If a kid finds out he can disappear without completing his sentence and nobody cares, your system is a joke and he won't respect it any more than juvenile court."

Some administrators wonder if teen court is here to stay. Says Thomas Moore: "Teen court is very much in vogue right now, but in three years, it could be teen what?"

But most parents, teens and others who become involved with teen court are more positive. Tammy Hawkins, court coordinator in Odessa. Tex., said: "If our future is left up to the teen court kids, we've all got great prospects."


Peer Justice and Youth Empowerment: An Implementation Guide for Teen Court Programs.

Free. Contact: Tracy Godwin

American Probation and Parole Association

P.O. Box 11910

Lexington, KY 40578-1910

(606) 244-8215

FAX (606) 244-8001

Philip De La Rosa

Association Community Outreach Director

YMCA of Greater Houston

1600 Louisiana

Houston, TX 77002

(713) 659-5566

Mary Beck


Texas Teen Court Association

615 W. Missouri No. 226

Midland, TX 79701


Teen Courts Catching On Across the Nation: How Amarillo's Teen Court Renders a Sentence and a Service

Traver, Nancy. "Teen Courts Catching On Across the Nation."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 1.

©2000 Youth Today. Reprinted with permission from Youth Today. All rights reserved.