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Youth offenders can opt for Teen Court

Beginning next month teens charged with running afoul of the law will have an alternative to conventional court system justice and landing a criminal record.

Plans are underway to introduce Teen Court to Stanly County in September. Teen Court is an alternative sentencing program that diverts misdemeanor cases from the Department of Juvenile Justice. It allows youth to avoid a criminal record for mischievous acts due as much to immaturity as criminal intent.

“We have a chance to repair children,” said Jennifer Plaster, executive director of the Conflict Resolution Center.

More than $30,000 has been awarded toward the program, courtesy of the Stanly County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council. Stanly County is matching its 30 percent funding requirement with in-kind contributions of an office on the second floor of the courthouse, according to Plaster.

The CRC, presently headquartered in Cabarrus County with a program underway in Stanly, offers alternatives designed to reduce the physical, emotional and financial harm caused by unresolved conflict, litigation and incarceration. CRC uses mediation and other restorative programs to accomplish its goal.

A different organization is spearheading a Teen Court in Rowan County.

Teen Court is one of eight programs under CRC. Teen Court offers first-time youth offenders a one-time opportunity for a second chance. However, there are efforts to revise those one-time chances to include each school level. Youth, ages 10-17, can participate in the program once during elementary school, once at the middle school level and another during high school.

About half of all juvenile crimes in North Carolina originate at school, Plaster said.

“The whole purpose of the program is to avoid these kids from getting a criminal record,” she added. “We’re protecting their futures. Who hasn’t done something stupid in school?”

There’s a movement to protect the futures of children saddled with the stigma of a criminal history, which adversely affects college and employment applications just as teens enter adulthood.

Effective next year, the age of juvenile jurisdiction for nonviolent crimes will become 18 years old. Part of the Raise the Age initiative, nonviolent offenders of ages 16 and 17 will no longer be remanded to the adult criminal justice system for nonviolent offenses beginning Dec. 1, 2019.

Advocates for the change contend those juveniles will have a better chance at success, instead of being labeled as a criminal.

North Carolina is the last state in the U.S. to raise the age.

Teen Court works similarly, sparing juveniles a criminal record and the criminal justice system. If a charged juvenile fulfills the sentencing requirements levied by Teen Court, criminal records are then expunged.

“The end game is for this is not to go on their record,” said Kathy Walker, Teen Court coordinator for Stanly County.

At one time prospective employers and colleges only asked whether an applicant had been convicted of a crime.

“No longer are you asked if you’ve been convicted of a crime. They want to know if you’ve ever been charged with a crime,” Plaster said. “By completing Teen Court they can answer ‘no.’ ”

How Teen Court Works

Participants can be referred to Teen Court by school resource officers, Department of Juvenile Justice or other law enforcement. But most likely the reference will be an SRO.

Schools figure prominently in Teen Court. In fact, 85 percent of the referrals originate at school.

Teen Court is comprised of an adult judge, usually a retired educator. The clerk and program facilitator are adults while the rest of the mock court personnel is made up of students, including jurors, prosecutor, defense attorney and bailiffs.

For a youth to qualify for Teen Court, they must admit responsibility for the misdemeanor with the setting handling the sentencing phase or determining an appropriate punishment for the offense.

“We’ve already established they did it,” Plaster said.

Another requirement is that the charged youth’s parents or legal guardian must be involved in the process.

Sentences typically include an essay, community service, victim/offender mediation, drug/alcohol screenings and jury duty.

Punishment is based on the level of misdemeanor and often stiffer than what they might actually get in the criminal justice system. Teen Court is considered more rehabilitative than conventional justice, Plaster said.

“The court system exists to be a deterrent, punishing people for crimes,” she added.

Data suggest Teen Court is effective, perhaps more than criminal justice system and without the heavy-handed impact.

“What we have typically found is that 90 percent of our participants are not reoffending within one year,” Plaster said.

The recidivism rate for juvenile offenders is 20 percent.

“So we’re cutting the recidivism rate in half,” Plaster added.

About 85 percent of youth complete the Teen Court program successfully. It climbs to 90 percent for satisfactory completion.

Teen Court will be held every third Monday at the county courthouse beginning in September.

Volunteers are needed to launch Teen Court in Stanly County. If you are interested in assisting, email stanlyteencourt@nomoreconflict.org. For more information about the program, visit www.nomoreconflict.org.

Contact Ritchie Starnes at 704-754-5076 or ritchie.starnes@stanlynewspress.com.