NLR Teen Court (NLRTC) was established in 2008 by Paula Jones and is administered by the NLR City Attorney’s Office and Judge Paula Jones. With the support of the NLR City Attorney’s Office, a successful partnership was established with NLR High School through which the program is run. Two NLRHS teachers sponsor the school-based program and serve as a point of contact between students and NLRTC. Case referrals come from Pulaski County Juvenile Court, NLRHS resource police officers, NLR traffic court and school administrators.
The process begins when a juvenile offender is diverted from juvenile court to NLRTC. The offender is given a court date in which to appear. Each NLRTC offender is required to admit their guilt before the trial begins. Punishment is the only issue at NLRTC. Offenders are encouraged to bring any witness they wish to have testify on their behalf and are given time to prepare for their case with their student attorney. Offenders are tried by a jury of their peers and their sentence completion is monitored by the Community Service Coordinator. Each offender is required to serve at least one term as a juror to complete their sentence.
All participants, besides offenders, are volunteers who are trained by the City Attorney’s office. These participants meet twice a month after school for training and cases. The students receive no school credit for their participation. NLR District Court Judge Paula Jones voluntarily serves as NLRTC judge.
Each school year brings new student attorneys. Attorneys are recruited through orientation, relevant classes, such as debate and criminal justice, and through advertising on the school TV channel. At the first meeting, participants are given a trial handbook to reference. All prospective student attorneys attend training sessions to learn trial skills. Once a student has attended training and participated in at least one session as a juror they are allowed to be a student attorney. All student attorneys are given the chance to be prosecutors and defense attorneys.
Teen Court, sometimes referred to as Youth Court, is a successful program to the fortunate handful Arkansas communities that utilize the concept. There are approximately 8 reported Teen Court programs in Arkansas, predominately administered by county juvenile courts. Formats for these courts vary widely. In 2008 NLR Teen Court joined Washington County Teen Court and a few other programs to establish the Arkansas Teen Court Association or ATCA. This association was made possible through a grant from the National Association of Youth Courts of $1,000.
According to the National Youth Court Database, in 1994 there were only 78 youth court programs in operation; as of March, 2010, there were over 1,050 youth court programs in operation in 49 states and the District of Columbia. As reported in the Urban Institute’s Evaluation of Teen Courts Project, which was based on four teen court programs studied in four different states (Alaska, Maryland, Arizona, and Missouri), the six-month recidivism figures among the programs ranged from 6% to 9% as compared to 42% for non-teen court offenders reported by some states. NAYC has record of Youth/Teen Court Associations in 18 states including Arkansas. The average reported annual budget for a youth court program is approximately $32,767.
Youth court programs strive to nurture in youth a respect for the rule of law, help develop positive citizenship attitudes, encourage civic engagement, and promote educational success through a diversity of service learning opportunities, strategies and activities. Youth courts are structured to provide positive alternative sanctions for first-time offenders by providing a peer-driven sentencing mechanism that allows young people to take responsibility and be held accountable. Positive peer pressure is used in youth courts to exert influence over adolescent behavior.
Youth volunteers actively learn the roles and responsibilities of the various parts of the judicial system. They act as law enforcement professionals, prosecuting and defense attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, jurors and even judges to gain experiential knowledge of the juvenile justice system. The youth respondents and volunteers acquire valuable understanding about police and probation officers, youth services workers, and court administration, paving a path for academic and career building opportunities. Youth courts alternative sentencing results in reduced costs per case as compared to the traditional justice system and result in reduced recidivism rates. Expanding youth courts is an effective strategy for reducing juvenile delinquency, allowing young people to take responsibility for their actions in benefit to their communities and to learn community engagement skills.
The growing number of Teen Courts nationwide indicates the gaining popularity of peer-based justice systems. A key component Teen Court is the concept of restorative justice. A growing world-wide social movement, restorative justice, is a theory of justice that emphasizes repairing the harm caused or revealed by criminal behavior. A goal of restorative justice is to seek to restore offenders to whole, contributing members of society. Teen Court supports this theory in that offenders are required to complete community service thereby immersing offenders into non-profits, municipal parks, etc.
The American Bar Association supports Teen Courts. In 2011 the ABA passed a resolution urging its state associations to create and provide appropriate support for Teen Courts “through a nondiscriminatory peer-driven restorative justice process involving family members, diverts youth from the formal consequences of juvenile court petitions, proceedings, adjudications, or juvenile justice sanctions…”
NLR Teen Court seeks to expand the program both in numbers of cases and participants. We also would like to encourage the establishment of more Teen Courts in the state and serve as an example to prospective Teen Court programs. A peer/mentor or adult/mentor program would be great fit for the program.