Law in Contemporary Society

Teen Court

-- By YvetteFerrer - 16 Feb 2012. Edited 29 April 2012

I would like to hear your comments and have a chance to edit this again. Thank you

Memory

In high school I did something called Plano Teen Court. Basically, minors who had committed a misdemeanor were able to get it taken off their record through community service. By being in the program, the defendants had to plead guilty, so the program just allocated community service hours. The cases were tried by high school students, judged by high school students, and juried by high school students. I was an attorney, but first had to sit on a few jury panels and listen to kid defendants’ stories about how they got in a fight at school or shoplifted.

Soon I became an attorney and started to work my way up the totem pole for the “big” cases -- drug paraphernalia and, if you were really lucky, DUIs. Before each trial, I’d meet with my “clients” and always recommended the same thing: say “sir and mam,” “yes” not “yea”, look like you are paying attention, and pretend to be remorseful. Then during trail, we attorneys would spin facts to create stories that made driving past legal curfew sound like a death penalty-worthy offense. But who knows if we attorneys made any difference since the verdicts always came back arbitrary. Regardless, I would track my “wins and losses” religiously, and secretly gloated when I started “winning” the big cases against the more experienced attorneys.

The Facts

There was no legal question in these cases because all the defendants signed papers indicating their guilt. So how were the community service hours decided? “Anyone who has ever watched a jury trial knows that the rules often become a mere subsidiary detail, part of the meaningless but dignified liturgy recited by the judge in the physical presence of the jury and to which the jury pays scant heed.” (J. Frank) Really, it depends on how much our jurors sympathize with the defendant. The facts were viewed through the lenses of the student jurors. There is no “accurate device for measuring which [defendants] are worthy of belief.” It is all magic – what is the juror’s life experience, how articulate is the teen lawyer, and did the defendant wear a polo or a t-shirt. As the attorneys, we liked to believe it was all us, but really many the jurors made up their minds as the defendant walked to the stand.

So what’s it really about?

Here’s what the website says: WHY SHOULD I GO TO TEEN COURT? 1. Teen Court holds the teen accountable for their offense. 2. Saves the teen or parent from paying the fine. 3. Keeps offense off the juvenile's record. 4. Gives the teen an opportunity for a positive learning experience. 5. Increase teen awareness of current laws. (http://www.plano.gov/Departments/MunicipalCourt/juveniles/TeenCourt/Pages/default.aspx)

The Line-by-line 1) Accountability – Really? There have been a few studies about recidivism rates among teen court defendants. Those studies are inconclusive due to lack of consistent testing strategies. Some studies indicate recidivism is as low as three to eight percent while others indicate recidivism exceeding twenty to thirty percent. (pg. 9 - http://youthcourt.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/183472.pdf)

2) Money – Now there’s a real motivator. The Texas Penal Code states, “a fine not to exceed $500 shall punish an individual adjudged guilty of a Class C misdemeanor.” Tex. Penal Code Ann. 12.23 (West). So every case goes through Teen Court is $500 lost to the state. However, it is possible that Teen Court still saves the Court money if the cost of processing is less than the cost would be in normal court. The average cost of operating a Teen Court in 2000 was $32,822 per year. (Pg. 3 http://youthcourt.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/183472.pdf). However, this is not representative as only 6.67% of Teen Courts in 2008 are operating with that budget and 30.67% operated with less than $10,000. (Pg. 17 - http://youthcourt.net/wp-content/uploads/2010/05/183472.pdf ) Given the low operating cost it seems possible that some programs many save money.

You're still depending too much on spell-checking and too little on proofreading. So here the wrong word is used, but because it is correctly spelled, you don't find the error.

3) Keeps offense of the juvenile’s record – Sweet, but not much in this for the State.

Again.

4) A positive learning experience – In some ways the program can be seen as a negative experience. Kid drives drunk and finds out that s/he can walk for no more than community service. And now is free to commit again as a first offense. At best kids learn something about the system. From reading the Plano Teen Court Website and other research, it seems the biggest motivating factor for Teen Courts is engaging teenagers in the system. But evidence is insufficient to show is Teen Court achieving that result. So is another motive for Teen Courts existence.

5) Increase teen awareness about current laws – how exactly? You’d be hard pressed to find a teen defendant who did not know possessing drug paraphernalia, fighting, or drunk driving was illegal.

So why did I do Teen Court?

I think did the activity for the community service hours. In fact I loved collecting community service hours in high school. I exceeded the required number for graduation and was clear into the hundreds by the time I walked across the stage.

So why did I do so much community service? To win. I was competitive. Thrilled by the high of winning. So maybe that’s it? I hoarded community service hours through a form of competitive community service. I measured my success by the wins, losses, and hours. So really what Teen Court provided me and other student attorneys was a semi-intellectual way of keeping score.

It really wasn’t about the defendants, it was about us, the teen attorneys - the “elite.” This was about “upstanding” students adding to our resumes. We were raking in the community service hours, not for the fuzzy feeling, but to get into the elite colleges. Teen Court was a two-for-one steal -- community service and credentials. All so we could go to elite colleges, attend the best law schools, get the best jobs, and live in suburbia with our 2.5 kids. Plano Teen Court was self-perpetuating system to facilitate the attorneys not rehabilitated the teens.

And again.


This is more tightly-edited than the last draft. Proof-reading is obviously a habit you still need to perfect.

From my point of view, the route to continued improvement here, as I said last time, is to widen the focus just a little bit more. The final comment, that this is not a rehabilitative process, is almost unnecessary: rehabilitation has never been an objective of Texas justice in any form. But there's more that could be said about what this institution and its associated practices mean than just that it doesn't mean rehabilitation, or that those who most benefit appear to be the "attorneys."

Maybe we would know more if we knew exactly how cases are sent to the Teen Court. Why would a DUI be sent there? When is a DUI a Class C misdemeanor in Texas?

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r6 - 22 Jan 2013 - 20:10:56 - IanSullivan
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