By Brett Thomas, Hume Smith Geddes Green & Simmons LLP
Kids make stupid mistakes – it is a part of growing up. But what happens when the law gets involved? Does it serve our community to punish children in a similar way we do adults?
Local nonprofit Reach For Youth has come up with an alternative to traditional Juvenile Justice and in–school punishment—one involving learning and growing. Kids are not taken into a traditional courtroom and represented, prosecuted and judged by adults. Instead, peers take on those roles.
Essentially a diversion program for teens, it is more comprehensive than the adult version. The first step: kids admit guilt. Once accepted into the program, they are given a court date. At that court date, they show up with a parent for a sentencing hearing.
A teen attorney will meet and talk to the defendant about what happened. These are mainly low level crimes like theft or battery. Sometimes the “crimes” are offenses in which they would traditionally not be charged criminally but could result in school suspension or expulsion. Meanwhile, a peer prosecuting “attorney” will prepare their cross examination.
When parties are ready, court begins; an adult attorney is the presiding judge. The jury of teens enters and is sworn. The prosecution and defense call witnesses who testify in front of the jury. Most of the time this is the defendant and the defendant’s parent or guardian. Once the attorneys have had their opportunity to question the witness, the jury may ask questions.
At the conclusion of the testimony, parties are allowed a brief closing argument. During this argument, the parties argue for the punishment they believe is just. The jury then retires to deliberate and agree on an appropriate punishment for the defendant. There are a list of suggested punishments such as an apology (verbal or written) to their parent/guardian or victim, community service, workshops and/or jury duty at a future court date. At least one session of jury duty is required. The jury may require the defendant to do something other than the punishments listed.
The verdict is given to the judge to read. The judge decides if the punishment handed down is appropriate and reasonable. The verdict is read. In some cases, the defendant is required to apologize to their parent/guardian at the hearing. Other punishments such as community service or workshops are coordinated by Reach for Youth.
Teen Court creates a less stressful environment in which kids can learn from their mistakes. At the same time, it teaches them about how the judicial system works. Kids who have entered as defendants and ended up being an attorney at later proceedings.
The IndyBar Criminal Justice Section has partnered with Reach for Youth this year to help staff Teen Court. I have personally presided over a few cases and it is a gratifying experience. It gives attorneys a chance to connect with teens, to teach and to try to reach out to a kid who needs some guidance.
If you are interested in being a part of Teen Court or you have a child who is interested in the law and would like to volunteer as a teen attorney or juror, please get in contact with us—see the contact information below. Here is a link to the Reach for Youth website for more information. This is a wonderful way to give back and we hope you will join our section in promoting and staffing Teen Court.
Dan Cicchini, Criminal Justice Section Chair: Daniel.Cicchini@indy.gov
John Gallo, Criminal Justice Section Vice Chair: John.Gallo@indy.gov
Brett Thomas, Criminal Justice Section Secretary: email@example.com