Susie got caught stealing from Walmart. Johnny got busted for drinking at a high school party. Jane sped through a stop sign – without a driver’s license.
Good kids make bad decisions.
I see it all the time – both in my law practice and in my role as a teen court judge. I also see a lot of unhappy parents who are concerned that their child’s criminal conduct will adversely affect their future.
Six years ago, I began volunteering as a judge for Metroport Teen Court, an innovative program that gives juveniles the opportunity to keep Class C misdemeanors off their record. The program, which is funded by the cities of Colleyville, Grapevine, Keller and Southlake, allows juvenile defendants to have their fate decided by a jury of their peers and to “pay off” their citations through community service.
Teen court is under the supervision of an adult judge – myself and several other lawyers who volunteer their time – but the rest of the judicial process is youth-driven.
Take the case of Susie, Johnny and Jane (all hypotheticals.) Susie was charged with theft under $50, Johnny picked up a citation for being a minor in possession of alcohol, and Jane was ticketed for driving without a license.
All pleaded guilty and agreed to enter the Metroport Teen Court program and have their punishment assessed by fellow teens who, previously, found themselves on the wrong side of the law.
On the day of their trials – which are held on Tuesday evenings at Southlake DPS Headquarters – juvenile defendants arrive to court with a parent or guardian.
Volunteer prosecutors and defense attorneys – youths from area schools who are considering careers in criminal justice – question them on the witness stand about their conduct, what kind of punishment they received at home, and whether they have accepted responsibility for their actions.
Sometimes parents are also called to the witness stand to testify.
After hearing all the testimony, a jury of their peers deliberates their punishment – which always includes community service (sometimes as many as 80 hours) and serving as a juror on future teen court trials. In some cases, the jury also orders the defendant to write an essay or attend alcohol or tobacco awareness classes.
And while the jury’s verdict is respected, the judge can – and often does – add more conditions or community service hours if warranted. A stern lecture from the judge is also not uncommon.
If the teen successfully completes their community service and the conditions of their sentence, the ticket will be dismissed and it will not appear on their record.
Over the years, I have presided over all kinds of teen court cases, including criminal mischief, curfew violations, vandalism, possession of drug paraphernalia, public intoxication, theft and disorderly conduct.
Some defendants cry, others lie. But I believe that all take something away from the program – a life lesson that, hopefully, will deter them from repeating their mistakes.
Later this month, a reception will be held at Southlake DPS Headquarters, recognizing the Metroport Teen Court program and a volunteer judge. I was honored to have received the Metroport Teen Court Judge Award in 2013.
Over the years, I’ve watched the Metroport Teen Court program expand and evolve. It has also been effective.
Not only does the program hold teens accountable for their actions, but it also teaches them about the justice system and giving back to the community.
The ultimate goal, of course, is to make sure that these juveniles don’t appear again in this court – or any other.
For more information about the Metroport Teen Court, please visit their website at www.metroport-teencourt.org or call 817-748-8346.
—Leslie Starr Barrows
A look ahead: Later this month, Leslie Starr Barrows and two other legal experts will speak to the Texas A&M Criminal Law Society about the juvenile justice system. The goal of the Texas A&M Criminal Law Society is to educate students who are interested in working in criminal law on the practical issues they may face as attorneys by learning from the experience of current professionals.