IN a makeshift courtroom, a 15-year-old boy tells a jury what happened when he and an accomplice were caught trying to steal a pack of cigarettes from a food store.A teenaged defense attorney prompts him as he tells that his parents were "very upset." He felt "very low." He was grounded for over a month - no phone, no friends over, no going out to any stores. His father made him cut his hair, which had been very long. Next, a teen prosecuting attorney steps in with some questions: "Are you sorry?" "Yes," replies the defendant. "Would you do it again?" "No." "Do you think it's cool to steal, that people will look up to you?... Do you know you're not old enough to buy cigarettes?... If you were older you could go to jail for stealing?... Do you know that when people steal that prices go up for the consumer? " And so on.
Welcome to teen court. Here, young first-time offenders who have already pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges attend teen court as an alternative to juvenile court. After hearing recommendations from prosecuting and defense lawyers, a teen jury hands down a sentence, or "consequences." If offenders adhere to the legally binding terms of the consequences, then their criminal record is crossed out. If not, they are turned over to juvenile court. On this Tuesday night at the Southside Youth Council Teen Court, the young man who shoplifted the pack of cigarettes was handed down these consequences: Write two essays on the effects of peer pressure and the effects of shoplifting, serve 20 hours of community service, and serve as a jury member here in the future. Teen court is not just a scolding session or a simple slap on the hand. It's positive peer pressure, and it works. None of the offenders to appear in more than 126 Southside cases has been re-arrested. From Lake County, Indiana (Gary, Ind.), youth coordinator Sandra Porter reports a 93 percent success rate. "Of 110 offenders, only seven have gone back to juvenile court," she says. "It's not just an adult, but peers telling you 'this is not acceptable, says Sarah Faur, teen court diversion program coordinator at Southside. (The jury of at least six teens is a mixture of volunteers from local high schools and former defendants.) The teen court program started in Odessa, Texas, in 1983. Since then, many counties in such states as Illinois, Wisconsin, Maryland, and California have implemented or expressed interest in setting up teen courts. Indiana offers it in six out of 92 counties. Funding is the major obstacle inhibiting its spread in Indiana, says Jim Killen, director of Indiana Youth Services Association. After an initial grant from the department of mental health ran out, teen courts turned elsewhere for funds, such as loca l courts, departments of correction, and the Indianapolis Foundation. "It's an outstanding diversion program. It keeps youngsters out of the court system by giving them an entirely different experience with authorities early on," Mr. Killen says, summing up: "It's constructively channeling peer pressure." In typical procedings, an adult judge starts off the hearing by leading an oath of confidentiality and then reading the offense out loud from a police report. Parents or legal guardians of the defendant are required to be present. Prosecuting and defense attorneys ask the defendant questions in front of the jury and then make "fair and appropriate" consequence recommendations that can include: community service, counseling sessions, paying for damages, apologizing to victims, writing essays, special education programs, and coming back to teen court as a juror. Then the teen jury delivers their consequence decision. "I shoplifted [sunglasses] once and got caught. It stays with you," says Jeremy Sturm, 15, who is now an active prosecuting attorney. "I like the program, and I thought it helped people like myself, and I wanted to be involved in it," he explains. "A lot of people would much rather do this because you could be put in a juvenile detention center." Moreover, involved teens and adults say that kids are better judges of other kids than adults are. "These kids know when you're telling a lie. They base their consequences not only on what the kid did, but their attitude," says Ms. Faur. Adds Jeremy: "We always know if they're giving us the runaround." Teen court judge Douglas Haney agrees. "Oftentimes a jury of their peers is more in tune with their real motives and attitudes and is able to come back with a sentence that's appropriate for someone their age." (If a defendant knows someone on the jury, that juror will be disqualified. Also if the defendant makes trouble for any of the teens in the court, they will be dropped from the program and referred back to juvenile court.) This night, the defense attorney asks the defendant's father if he has anything to say to his son and the jury, and he replies sternly: "He better never do it again." "We want the parents involved. It's important for them to be here not only to support their kids but [to] understand and gain a better rapport," says Faur. Sometimes emotions between parents and teens surface - such as feelings of disgust, disappointment, remorse - and the jury may even recommend family counseling. "Nothing I can do here tonight will help them more than the hurt and disappointment they feel and their parents feel," says Judge Haney, an attorney with the large Indianapolis firm of Ice Miller Donadio & Ryan. "For the type of cases we have - basically shoplifting - the system works quite well," says Haney. Teen court is formal enough that the young offenders will understand the gravity of their crime, yet informal enough that they are allowed to benefit from their mistake without long-term, negative effects. "Every place, every big-time city needs to have some sort of intervention program to stop the cycle of crime. By the time kids get caught, they've usually done it more than once," says Faur, who formerly worked with delinquent children in Chicago. Compared with the juvenile system, "There's no way you can beat teen court costwise," Faur adds. Also, this is a wonderful way for kids to become familiar with the court system and gain greater respect for the law, Faur adds. Chris Hermann, assistant teen court coordinator and a former teen prosecutor, says being involved in teen court has solidified his decision to attend law school. "It's been excellent practice and develops good speaking skills," says Mr. Hermann, a sophomore at Butler University in Indianapolis. At the end of each session, all rise to hear the judge's closing statement: "Remember, that only if we do respect each other and the law and act responsibly can we live and work together in a happy and peaceful fashion."