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

Nancy Traver
November 1, 1997

Fourteen-year-old Jack Rock nervously took the stand and faced the jury. Six youngsters, aged 10 to 15, would decide Rock's fate. There was no banging gavel, but Amarillo Teen Court was in session.

Rock, uncomfortable in a gray pinstripe suit, had been charged with fighting on school grounds. According to a police report, even after two teachers broke up the fight. Rock and his sparring partner grabbed each other and kept on punching.

What led up to the brawl? Rock said the other boy had been taunting him all year, calling him names like "spic" and "greaser."

One juror asked Rock if he'd ever informed the principal or his parents about the harassment. "How could I? They'd never do anything about it," Rock replied.

Another juror asked. "So you wanted to fight, right?" Rock replied: "No, I just wanted him to leave me alone."

After completing their questioning, the jurors filed into the jury room for deliberation. Rock left the stand and returned to a seat next to his father.

Inside the jury room, the teens discussed Rock's offense. One pointed out that Rock started the fight. But another disagreed. "No, the other guy started it, by calling him names."

A Junior League member stood by, offering advice. The possible sentence for fighting, the Jury was told, was 25 to 75 hours of community service. The final decision: Rock received 35 hours of service and three evenings of jury duty.

Object: A Clean Record

After leaving the courtroom and making arrangements to perform his sentence, Rock said, "you either get a police record or you come here. And I didn't want a record."

Although he pronounced his sentence "fair," Rock said his school had been unfair. “The principal never believed anything I said and thought I was a trouble maker."

The teenager's father, Max Rock, objected that his son had already been suspended and had to report to after-school detention as punishment for fighting, "This is adding insult to injury. If somebody called me names all year long. I'd fight, too. If you don't stick up for yourself, no one will," he said.

He added that teen court was unfair to parents because they were "being punished along with the kids." Said Rock: "I work hard all day and at night I come home tired. I'd like to stay home watch TV and instead I have to be here. I want to be with my son and stand up for him. But this is like I'm being punished."

Amarillo's teen court coordinator, Mitch Presnall, looked on sympathetically, agreeing that the elder Rock was "an incidental victim." Later, he said including parents was "one of the strengths of teen court."

Said Presnall: "Sometimes there's been a breakdown in family communication and this process gets people talking. Parents find out what their kids are up to."

And not all parents complain of being punished alongside their teen-age children. Esmeralda Fiero, whose 18-year-old son, Mac, was in teen court on a shoplifting charge, said she was "mainly grateful." She added: "My son has to have a clean record before he goes to college. And this has taught him to watch who he hangs around with. He's had his lesson without getting a bad record."

Mac Fiero said, "That was the last of it — no more. I'm not getting in trouble again. I have a lot of things I want to do with my life and I can't do them with a crime like misdemeanor theft on my record."

Presnall explained that Amarillo's teen court was founded in 1990 by the Junior League and operates under the jurisdiction of municipal court. Last year, 593 teens were referred to teen court by the probation department, municipal court, or the schools. Teen court convenes every Monday at 5:30 p.m. and handles 10 traffic cases and 10 misdemeanor cases.

Volunteers from the Junior League and high schools run each teen court session. Presnall is the only paid staffer: the annual budget is $35,000 and he says that "provides me with what I need here — salary, printing costs, a computer, that's all."

Despite its thrift, the Amarillo teen court has had its financial shortfalls. Originally, the Junior League helped set up the program with a $7,000 donation. That gift has been reduced each year, however; last year, the league gave teen court only $3,000.

Getting to Kids Early

So Presnall has had to look for other funding. The program was at first supported by Randall and Potter counties, but the counties cut teen court out of their budgets in 1991. Now, the program's money partly comes from Randall County, the city of Canyon, and the city of Amarillo.

“Teen court is so low cost. Really, $35,000 a year in this city is nothing" the director said. "But every year in August, right before budget hearings, I cringe."

Other agencies in the Amarillo area had mainly praise for teen court.

Lee Rivas, a juvenile probation officer for Randall County, said she has sent many referrals to teen court during the past five years. "If we don't have to deal with these lesser crimes, it means we can spend more time working with the chronic and serious offenders. Teen court is one more way to work with youth — and we need all the help we can get," said Rivas.

Cynthia Creswell, executive director of the Amarillo Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse, called teen court "an effective and positive thing for the entire community." Teens are referred to the council for community service; they spend their time previewing films or literature, serving as an informal sounding board on what works among young people in discouraging drug abuse.

Only Martha Garcia, executive director of the aptly named Maverick Boys and Girls Clubs, questioned whether defendants actually complete their terms of community service. "You might have a problem ensuring things are followed through. There are a lot of things kids simply will not do — period. And what do they do with the real trouble makers? Also, what about fines — are they ever paid?”

Presnall explained that only teens charged with minor crimes are allowed into teen court and, instead of paying fines to the county, defendants pay teen court, which helps defray some of the county's costs.

He believes working with kids when they're young is the best deterrent. "We've dealt with kids here as young as 10 — you want to get up and wipe their nose for them. But we have a better shot at changing someone's life at 12 or 13 than waiting until they're 20."

Traver, Nancy. "Teen Courts Catching On Across the Nation: How Amarillo's Teen Court Renders a Sentence and a Service."Youth Today, November/December 1996, p. 17.

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