Teen Court is a diversion program designed to offer an alternative to formal juvenile court proceedings. At Teen Court’s sentencing phase trials, trained high school student volunteers using a Peer Jury format, roughly modeled after the process used by a grand jury, perform the courtroom roles of clerk, bailiff, juror and advocate.
Teen Court defendants are misdemeanor offenders generally aged 11-17, who voluntarily agree to participate. These cases are referred by the State Attorney’s Office and law enforcement agencies. Parental participation is mandatory for Teen Court defendants in that the parent(s) must attend an initial interview and the court hearing. Teen Court mainly handles charges such as retail theft, petit theft, possession of alcohol by a person under age 21, possession of marijuana or drug paraphernalia, criminal mischief, battery, trespassing and other charges.
Central to Teen Court’s philosophy is accepting personal responsibility for one’s actions. The defendant comes before the Teen Court Program for sentencing, having already admitted wrong doing. In following with this essential component of the program format, defendants will be appropriately sanctioned.
On the evening of the hearing, the teen volunteers and former defendants sitting on the jury have a chance to review information about the defendant and his/her crime, before the proceedings begin. In the courtroom, an adult facilitator or judge presides over the session. The jurors and the judge ask the defendant questions that are relevant to the defendant’s crime, school and family circumstances. Once the jurors believe they have sufficiently questioned the defendant, they go to the deliberation room and prepare a brief statement regarding their views on the defendant’s actions and their decision as to the most appropriate sanctions for this particular defendant.
The Teen Court jury will sanction community service, mandated attendance in a self-improvement community program, Teen Court jury duty, restitution, counseling, drug treatment, letters of apology, writing essays, etc. After the hearing, the defendant signs a contract agreeing to successfully complete the sanctions imposed. The case is tracked by a Teen Court Case Manager and when the sanctions are completed, the case is closed as successful. If the defendant fails to successfully complete the sanctions, the case is referred back to the State Attorney’s Office for a decision regarding prosecution.
The Teen Court process provides defendants with:
- A forum to explain their involvement in the offense;
- A structures environment where their words and actions are evaluated and judged by the jury of their peers
- An opportunity to accept responsibility for their actions by fulfilling the jury's sentence;
- An opportunity to associate and work with peers who are highly regarded academically and socially in their schools and communities; and
- An opportunity to take a "negative" association with the criminal justice system and turn it into a positive association and important learning experience.
The Teen Court Program provides the student volunteers with:
- A unique opportunity to demonstrate to adults and themselves their capacity for self-government and responsible citizenship, and to prepare for jury duty in adulthood;
- And educational "hands-on" experience with the legal system; and
- A way to serve their community and earn community service hours necessary for high school graduations.
The first nationally recognized Teen Court program was started in 1983 in Odessa, Texas. Florida’s first Teen Court program was developed in Sarasota County in 1988. While the operation and administration of Teen Court programs across the nation varies considerably, these programs have generally been deemed very successful, reporting recidivism rates between 5 and 10 percent.
Broward County’s Teen Court is administered by the 17th Judicial Circuit’s Trial Court Administration – Court Mediation and Arbitration Program. The main program office is located at the Broward County Courthouse at 201 SE 6th Street, Room 565, Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33301, (954-831-7600). Teen Court hearings are currently held at the West Regional Courthouse, 100 N. Pine Island Road in Plantation; the North Regional Courthouse, 1600 W. Hillsboro Blvd. in Deerfield Beach; Broward County Courthouse, 201 SE 6th Street in Ft. Lauderdale; and the South Regional Courthouse, 3550 Hollywood Blvd. in Hollywood.