Friday, October 17, 2008

Pleading to a Jury of Your Peers

The defendant makes her way to the bench, a petulant look on her face. The judge swears her in, then turns the proceedings over to the council for the state. He gets to his feet and addresses the jury with some simple words about paying attention to the facts and rendering a fair verdict. Then it’s the defense’s turn.

It’s a scene that’s played out in thousands of courtrooms across the United States every day. The American Judicial System in action. The verbal jousting of opposing council. A jury of one’s peers. But on this night in Frisco, Texas, one significant thing is different.

Only a handful of people in the courtroom are over the age of 18.

This is Teen Court. But make no mistake, this is still a court, with the full weight of the Collin County Court system and legal code behind it. Defendants are represented by council. They’re prosecuted by “district attorneys” and the cases are heard by an impartial jury. Participants are youths between 13 and 18 years old from Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Plano and other parts of Collin County. There’s a dress code for everyone involved. If a defendant shows up in a tee shirt, they’re likely to be sent home to change into more appropriate garb. After all, according to the information sheet shared with all defendants, “The business of the court is not casual. Your attire should not be either.”

Unlike regular courts, in Teen Court they’re not concerned with determining a defendant’s guilt or innocence. That’s because they’ve already entered a plea of “Guilty” or “No Contest” in a Municipal or Justice of the Peace courtroom, and a sentence has been handed down. Teen Court merely gives them the opportunity to plead their case in front of a jury that really is made up of their peers. Some of the participants in Teen Court were once defendants themselves, since one of the punishments the jury can hand down is that defendants must serve on a future Teen Court jury.

And that’s the attraction of Teen Court. Many teens feel that adults just don’t “get it.” Ignoring for a moment the fact that all we thirty- and forty-somethings were once teens ourselves, it’s true that we’ve probably changed a bit since then. When a sentence is passed by another group of teens, many of whom have sat on the other side of the room, it’s hard to argue that they don’t feel some empathy.

So the courts will set aside the judgment of the adults and let the youths decide. As with other courts, juries have their guidelines. Depending on the severity of the offense, they can assign a range of community service, from 4 to 48 hours. Along with one or more stints on upcoming juries, the defendant is always assigned a 500-word essay on their experience with Teen Court. Beyond that, juries can get creative. Does the offense involve fighting? Send ‘em to anger management counseling. Vandalism? Make ‘em scrub some walls. Pretty much anything within reason is fair game.

Naturally, the Teen Court is overseen by a group of adults. The judge is often a volunteer judge or lawyer working in the area. Several others offer their time to coordinate the cases, get signatures and act as the bailiff. Running the entire program is Shirlane Grant, a professional appointed by the Colin County Court system. “Teen Court is an ideal program designed for young people, giving them the opportunity to get involved and learn about county government and the judicial system,” commented Ms. Grant. “This is where you will find ‘real teens delivering real justice for real crimes.’ Teen Court is also designed as a first offender program and this works both ways, it helps to prevent teen offenders from being repeat offenders and it also diverts young people from becoming first offenders.”

In a time where stories of moly-coddled kids are plentiful, it’s refreshing to see some of them taking a direct role in the system. Granted, many of them are there fulfilling their own sentences. But many more volunteer as part of their civic responsibility. One such volunteer, Ms. Bailey McNary, an eighth grader at Frisco’s Wester Middle School, had this to say about her experience with Teen Court: “I thought it was really cool that kids were deciding the punishment for kids. I was surprised by how much time we actually took to decide each case.” As a result of her experience, Ms. McNary is now considering pursuing a career in law when she moves on to high school and beyond.

Many would claim that the last thing this world needs is more lawyers. But take a look at the people who make Teen Court work and you’ll see that not all legal eagles are turkeys.

To find out more about Teen Court, including how to volunteer, visit their website at

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