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Teens face jury of peers in Teen Court

Teen Court volunteers, Joseph Knox (left) and Nick Blount (right) in court session on April 17. Knox acted as prosecutor while Blount worked as defense attorney. Teen Court is a Department of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention program. (Contributed Photo/Jeremiah Jackson)

The scene is straight out of a courtroom drama. The defendant and defense attorney sit at one table; the prosecution camps at another. A jury watches from the wings as the bailiff calls the court to order.

Any observer would realize immediately that in this court there’s a definite twist, not because the defendant is a juvenile, but because nearly everyone else in the courtroom is too. The attorneys who argue both sides of the case, the bailiff, clerk of court and the entire jury, all of them are teenagers. The judge presiding over the case is the sole adult.

This is Teen Court, a program sponsored by Department of Juvenile Justice Delinquency Prevention. Here, first-time juvenile offenders are given an alternative to the juvenile-court system and a chance to right wrongs without the stigma of a court record. But once they’ve chosen to go the Teen Court route, they must adhere to the court’s requirements: admission of guilt for the charge against them, serving a minimum sentence of five hours of community service and a future stint on the Teen Court jury, and, ultimately, letting themselves be judged not by the system, but by their peers.

Their peers are volunteers from four of the five Beaufort County high schools, recruited by the Horizons Program director and Teen Court facilitator, Jeremiah Jackson. They get no school credit for taking part, but according to Jackson, the student volunteers are performing a valuable service.

“They’re doing a service for the community,” said Jackson. “They’re offering suggestions and solutions for what (the defendant) can do to avoid getting in trouble in the future.”

Jackson broke down the duties performed by the Teen Court volunteers: the clerk of court administers the oath of confidentiality; the bailiff calls the court to order; the jury makes the decisions as to punishment for the defendant.

According to Jackson, the stars of the courtroom are the prosecuting and defense attorneys.

“The more outgoing students tend to gravitate toward the attorney spots,” he said. “But (Teen Court) gives everyone an opportunity to do some public speaking.”

Since the prosecution has no need to prove the burden of guilt, the role entails explaining to the defendant how his or her crime was wrong. The defense attorney, instead of having to prove a client’s innocence, lays out the extenuating circumstances of the case to the jury.

“The kids that volunteer do a great job of whatever role they are in,” said Jackson. “They act very professional. They really think about the questions they ask.”

The juries of Teen Court have heard 16 cases this year — cases involving misdemeanor larceny, simple drug possession, underage drinking, simple assault/fray — and additional sessions have been added to the once-a-month schedule as more first-time offenders opt for the Teen Court.

According to Jackson, Teen Court provides far more than determining penalties like community service and/or service hours in lieu of restoration fees: it gives children who’ve made bad decisions a chance to get straight and move on, with a greater understanding of themselves in society.

“It makes (the defendants) focus on their community and focus on how their actions and behaviors affect the community,” explained Jackson. “They understand that the people in the courtroom care about the decisions they’re making, the choices they’re making.”