Students for Social Justice Serve on Teen Court
“Everybody’s story is different, but they all started out as rebellious teenagers, and that’s what encourages me to keep going. I don’t want this for our youth,” said Teen Court coordinator Sabrina Future. “If they can have a change of heart and a change of mind, then they can have a change of action.”
Teen Court is an alternative program for teenagers charged with misdemeanors such as shoplifting. Teenage volunteers from the Cleveland area comprise the court, and try fellow teenagers. The court session proceeds like a regular juvenile hearing, but there is no adult intervention.
“A case goes to a [juvenile court], which then decides to send it to Teen Court for us to figure out the best solution,” explained sophomore Inkyu Kim. “One of us represents [the teenager being tried], and the others try to get a sort of punishment that will make [the accused] learn from their decision.”
The Teen Court program was originally created to relieve juvenile courts from an overflow of cases. The program is partly funded by the Disproportionate Minority Contact, a branch of the Federal Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention that seeks to address discrimination in the justice system.
Teen Court has proven to be a successful corrective measure for teens. According to the YMCA website, the Teen Court program has had a 95% completion rate. This means that 95% of students tried in the court have fulfilled the consequence assigned to them.
“First of all, we don’t say punishment,” said Future. “If you say punishment, they go through the process, but they don’t learn anything because they feel you’re punishing them but not teaching them. We want people to take ownership [of their actions], so we say consequence.”
Most students who go through the court must attend a seminar, attend a Student Leadership Club meeting, write an apology letter, write an essay, sit on the Teen Court, attend a social event and submit a report card.
These consequences are made to encourage and uplift students rather than shame them. As Kim described it, “[The Teen Court’s] goal is to turn a negative situation into a positive lifetime experience.”
While Teen Court seems to be a success story for participants tried in the court, it is also a perspective-broadening experience for volunteer students who lead the court hearings.
Sophomore Alexander Machtay also expressed how the concept of Teen Court has appealed to him. He explained that being responsible for dealing out consequences to another teenager can be empowering.
“I think kids like responsibility, especially when they get [a case that is] pretty interesting, and they get to decide about it,” said Machtay.
“The whole point is to have a fresh perspective on peer-to-peer evaluation,” he went on to say.
In running the Teen Court program, Future also aims to encourage students to explore issues in their community and society at large. When the
Teen Court volunteers are not hearing a case, they meet once a week with other participants from various schools and backgrounds, and discuss such issues.
“I enjoyed it so much that I have made it a program for my BBYO chapter, now we all go,” said sophomore Jon Shapiro. “I have been involved for a little over a year. I got a lot of legal experience and I was able to help the next generation, my generation, and that is something I find important.”
Jerad Williams, a new volunteer on the Teen Court from Brush High School, explained what his first meeting was like. “I was intrigued at the basic concept of the program. A court for teens run by teens is not something you hear about everyday,” said Williams. “I enjoyed the open discussions we had. It was a chance to learn about some different perspectives.”
Teen Court also organizes trips to learn more about the justice system.
One of Future’s favorite experiences is an annual trip to the justice center. “The [students] were able to talk to inmates. They got locked up in the cell for ten minutes, and for most people this is an [eye-opening] experience,” said Future.
Shapiro also talked about a memorable trip. “I think [Teen Court] gives me a lot of opportunities, like going down to Columbus to lobby [for the youth],” said Shapiro.
From trying teens to debating societal issues and going on field trips, Teen Court has proved to be a worthwhile experience for all involved.
“The decisions of today will affect [our generation] longer than they affect the decision makers. However, we don’t have the right to complain if we don’t do anything to solve the issues, and Teen Court can provide a facet for such expression,” said Shapiro.