Teen courts, also known as youth courts, student courts, and peer courts are structured alternative forums where youth can adjudicate peer crimes. Teen courts date back to the 1960s, but did not come to national attention until the 1990s. The programs in the 1990s grew out of efforts promulgated by the American Bar Association to hold youth accountable for their actions before they develop a pattern of law-breaking behavior. According to the National Youth Court Database, in 2006, there were more than 1,127 youth court programs in the United States. Unlike traditional juvenile justice systems, teen courts do not fall within the judicial branch of government. Instead, they are intervention and diversion programs meant to prevent future crimes through peer pressure and relevant, but restorative punishments. Youth offenders between the ages of 10 and 17 can qualify for adjudication in teen courts.
The main purpose of most teen court programs is to determine a fair and restorative sentence, taking into account the needs of both the youth defendants and their victims. Most teen courts are administered or sponsored by juvenile courts, probation officers, law enforcement, nonprofit organizations, or schools. All teen courts operate within the parameters of individual state laws, which vary significantly from state to state. Some states have enacted legislation and standards for design, operation, and funding of such courts. Other states include broad legislation that grants county officials, school districts, and local nonprofit groups the discretion to enact teen courts.
In most states, the teen court’s authority is informal. First-time youthful offenders agree to judgment by the teen court as part of a diversion program negotiated with the traditional juvenile justice system. Juveniles and their families agree to comply with the teen court program stipulations in exchange for dismissal of delinquency charges. The penalty for noncompliance with the teen court process is that the offending youth must return to the traditional juvenile justice system and face adjudication by a juvenile court judge.
Teen courts operate like regular juvenile courts, except that there are fewer adults involved, and teenagers take the roles of court clerks, bailiffs, attorneys, jurors, and even judges. They accept a range of offenses for adjudication, but typically reject more serious violent crimes. Most youth courts accept crimes related to theft; vandalism; cigarette, alcohol, and drug possession and use; curfew violation; and truancy. Few courts accept crimes related to fraud, harassment, and criminal mischief. Most sentencing options include a combination of community service, oral and/or written apologies, essays, jury duty, monetary restitution, and attendance at educational workshops. Substance abuse offenders’ sentences include drug and alcohol testing. Traffic violations result in suspended driver’s licenses. Sentences for victim-related crimes include restitution, victim awareness classes, victim/offender mediation, and jail tours. Some former youth defendants are sentenced to work within the teen court process adjudicating other peer offenders.
Teen courtroom models vary from state to state and from program to program. Four general types exist: adult judge, youth judge, youth tribunal, and peer jury. In the adult judge model, young people perform all of the court roles, except for that of the judge. In the youth judge model, young people, with adult supervision and management, perform all roles. Youth tribunals consist of three youth judges who hear the cases presented by the youth attorneys. Peer jury models operate like a grand jury in that the jury of teens can ask the defendant questions directly. All four teen courtroom models require unpaid participation on behalf of the participating youth. Youth who work in teen courts are either volunteers or previous defendants working in the court as a condition of their sentence.
- Butts, J., & Buck, J. (2000, October). Teen courts: A focus on research. Juvenile Justice Bulletin.
- Butts, J., Buck, J., & Coggeshall, M. (2002, April). The impact of teen courts on young offenders. Urban Institute.
- Herman, M. (2002). Juvenile justice trends in 2002: Teen courts–A juvenile justice diversion program. National Center for State Courts.
- National Association of Youth Courts: http://www.youthcourt.net/
- Williamson, D., & Wells, J. (2004). Making youth court as effective as possible. Chicago: American Bar Association.