Juveniles that break the law in South Dakota have an opportunity to keep their records clean. Youths that opt to go through the Teen Court program instead of the traditional juvenile court system can go through the court process alongside their peers who act as their attorneys and jurors in the Teen Court’s restorative justice process. Court officials say Teen Court helps youths learn from their mistakes, helps keep them out of the adult criminal justice system, and keep their futures bright.
Many young people don’t realize how a criminal record can haunt them into their adult life. A criminal record can make it extremely difficult to get into college or land a good paying job. Court officials say youth that are getting into trouble with the law need a helping hand getting back on the right path, and they say Teen Court does just that.
“The goal of Teen Court is to offer an opportunity for first-time offenders of juvenile misdemeanor crimes, to give them the opportunity to be held accountable for their charge but to keep their record clean,” says Todd.
Marlene Todd is the Director of the Lawrence County Teen Court program. She’s also the President of the National Association of Youth Courts.
“I started the Teen Court program in 1995 as a result of being a court service officer and just the frustration level of seeing the juveniles cycling through the system. I witnessed the opportunity of teen court in Texas and the success of their program and brought it back to the state of South Dakota and implemented it in 1995,” says Todd.
Today there are twelve Teen Courts in South Dakota.
Todd says Teen Court is effective in helping kids stay out of trouble because it is peer-based. The court proceedings take place in an actual court room. The defense and prosecuting attorneys as well as the jury and bailiff are made up of teens. Some of the Teen Court legal team is made up of volunteers, while others are participating as a condition of a prior sentence. The judge is often a local attorney or member of law enforcement that is volunteering his or her time.
Todd says teens often say they drink or smoke or steal because their friends are doing it. Take for instance Bailey from Lawrence County – her name has been changed to protect her identity as a minor – but she was drinking alcohol at a party. The police showed up and Bailey was found hiding in the bathtub. Bailey was charged with minor consumption and opted to go through the Teen Court program and instead of facing a judge – she’s facing her peers – one of which is the prosecuting attorney.
Marlene Todd says Teen Court helps kids acknowledge their mistake and move on instead of having to live under the dark shadow of a criminal record.
“I believe it’s very important to keep it going because it provides that young person the opportunity to repair the harm that their behavior has caused. Kids will be kids. They will make mistakes but they don’t need it held over their head for the rest of their life,” says Todd.
She says going through Teen Court instead of the traditional juvenile court saves the county time and money as well.
Court officials say that Teen Court takes the individual and their unique situation into account when deciding sentences and that contributes to the success of the program.
Francy Foral is the Strategic Plan Coordinator for the State Bar of South Dakota. She also practiced as an attorney in Lawrence County. Today she volunteers to be the judge for Teen Court. She says first-time offenders can really benefit from the program.
“Teen court is so much more tailored to each individual offender and what they need. These kids are teens, they are listening to this case and they are trying to figure out a sentence that is tailored to this particular teenager that will help them not ever make the same mistake again – and that’s pretty powerful,” says Foral.
Foral says offenders are held accountable for their actions and through the restorative justice process of Teen Court they can also make amends.
“They learn that restorative justice means repairing the harm that they’ve caused to their families, to the community, to themselves, to society basically,” says Foral.
Foral says Teen Court works well because offenders often end up on the jury as part of their sentence or go on to be an attorney and defend their client. This shows them how to be compassionate while also making sure that the punishment fits the crime.
Brittany Thompson is a Spearfish High School graduate. She’s been involved with Teen Court for three years. She says helping with Teen Court is a great way to help her peers and her community, and in the meantime she’s getting a lesson in the South Dakota legal system.
Thompson says she is often the bailiff during Teen Court. She says many but not all of the teens she sees come through the program are remorseful. Thompson says a goal of Teen Court is to take a deeper look into the lives of offenders when deciding their sentence.
“And we’ve even come, I think even just this year, have come a long way of instead of just going through and just sentencing them out is really getting down to the personal problem and definitely figuring out some kind of sentence for them –whether it’s let’s get them involved in a hobby they like to do. Most kids that come through here – they were bored,” says Thompson.
Brittany Thompson says she is committed to helping young people that are in trouble get back to being productive citizens.
Teen Court Director Marlene Todd says her mission to help South Dakota youths is coming along, but is still not yet complete. She says she wants to see Teen Court in every community so troubled teens make amends for their mistakes but still keep their record clean.