Justice experts say teen court may be best option to keep some young offenders out of jail

Justice experts say teen court may be best option to keep some young offenders out of jail. // WSBT 22 photo

Kids will be kids.

But what happens when youngsters go too far and end up on the wrong side of the law?

Many of those kids will end up in the court system.

Juvenile justice experts say the regular system might not be the best fit for some teen offenders.

The St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center won a grant to build a teen court.

There are a few of these diversion programs in our area, designed for first-time, low-level offenders.

The programs hope to keep these kids out of jail and to put them back on the right track.

"Bashor is a real life changer. It gives people opportunity to become better than they were yesterday,” said a former teen court defendant.

“My time volunteering and serving as a jury member has taught me many life lessons,” said a former teen court defendant.

Those two young men who were charged with battery.

They completed the teen court program at Bashor Children's Home, a program St. Joseph County hopes to mirror.

"This is taking peer pressure and using it in a very positive way, a very positive way,” said Cynthia Nelson, executive director, St. Joseph County Juvenile Justice Center

Cynthia Nelson is the executive director for St. Joseph County's Juvenile Justice Center.

She says her teen court, like most in the country, will look a little different than most people might expect.

"A teen defender, a teen prosecutor, we hope to also have teen bailiffs if we can manage it,” said Nelson.

Also an all teen jury.

Nelson says it's all about holding peers accountable.

“Even in kindergarten, when a kid breaks the rules, another child very well might step up and inform him or her 'hey! You can't do that,” said Nelson.

As teens, that accountability doesn't go away.

"It's a sentencing hearing, not something where you're proving innocence or guilt so the child is expected to come in and admit to their offense to move forward,” said Lori Harrington, director of community based and clinical support services, Bashor Children's Home.

As part of Bashor's program, a defendant won't get jail time.

Instead, they may get a writing assignment.

"You need to research this, find out what harms could come from it long term, and then we'll sit down and talk about that,” said Harrington.

The defendant may also get a mental health evaluation and treatment.

"One of the consequences every time will be that the defendant must come back and serve on three teen courts, probably on a jury,” said Nelson.

This may seem like a slap on the wrist.

"But it's really trying to get the child to think about what they did and what could consequences have been,” said Harrington.

Harrington says the changes she sees are sometimes pretty dramatic.

She told me about one of their biggest success stories, a girl who keyed a car and poured syrup through the sunroof.

"She cursed on the stand, she said she didn't care, she wasn't going to complete. By the time she was finished, she was sitting on the jury telling the other kids 'You know, this would be very helpful for this kid because it helped me,’” said Harrington.

Some may argue that the consequences of teen court don't have any teeth.

Harrington says if that girl had decided not to complete she'd be returned to a pretty toothy system where she could have faced jail time.

Bashor statistics show four out of five kids complete the program.

Of those teens, three won't offend again.

According to research funded partly by the US Department of Justice, kids who don't go through teen courts are more than twice as likely to re-offend down the road.

"A lot of the times if you go to detention you're going to be around other kids who are getting in a lot of trouble and not necessarily receiving treatment,” said Harrington.

That could lead to something worse.

"Time spent in detention is a great predictor that youth will have serious mental health illness in the future, and people who've been in juvenile detention are much more likely to commit suicide,” said Nelson.

That's not a desirable outcome.

"Kids are going to be kids. Don't get me wrong. ornery kids are probably one of the best things we can have because it shows spirit, it shows independence, it shows strong personal strength which are all aspects of kids that we love and want to build,” said Becker.

Becker says those ornery feelings just need to be pointed in the right direction.

Teen courts help.

“Your mistakes do not define who you are as a person. What defines you as a person is what you choose to do after your mistake,” said a former teen court defendant.

"It really truly is a second chance,” said Harrington.

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