Teen Court making a difference

Published 12:14 am Sunday, October 23, 2011

Like adults, teenagers in Selma are appearing before a jury of their peers. More often than not, it’s their only appearance.

Since launching teen court in Dallas County, District Judge Bob Armstrong said there has been a significant decrease in all juvenile crime.

“Juvenile crime is down 66 percent and violent juvenile crime is down 67 percent, now that is something,” he said. “I have two cases on the juvenile docket … two. I used to have 25 every time. Not anymore. And one of the reasons why is the teen court.”

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Those who appear in teen court, Armstrong said, are normally first-time offenders of nonviolent crimes and have already admitted they have done something wrong.

“Really teen court is just about what to do next,” he said. “They actually have a hearing and the students are the lawyers. They serve as prosecutor, defense attorney and jurors.”

The jury, Armstrong said, decides what the consequences will be, which is usually community service, a written apology, or curfews.

Teens undergo training sessions where they learn about all aspects of the judicial system and are also given a role to play, whether it be prosecutor, defense or juror.

Armstrong said members of the jury cannot send teens to the detention center, but they can help establish probation requirements.

If those requirements are met, the case is dismissed and the teen’s record is clean. If they are not, they face more serious consequences.

Most never come back before Armstrong, he said, because of teen court. Appearing before people their own age often scares offenders straight.

“The children hate to have their peers judge them,” he said. “That is a real deterrent there. They can’t stand it because a lot of times the kids will recommend something that is harder than we would.”

Armstrong said having Selma City Schools truant officer Lorraine Capers and Felicia Pettaway on board has helped tremendously.

“They are very straightforward with the teens and I think that gets their attention,” he said. “This has been a great program for us. We see results constantly.”