It’s official: The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office is going to school.
Last fall, Prosecutor Kym Worthy and company joined forces with the Detroit Public Schools to develop Teen Court, a special program featuring courtrooms inside two DPS high schools, Denby and Southeastern. Already, the courts are bringing benefits to Detroit students, including shielding a slice of them from the burden of a juvenile record.
Certain lawbreakers are diverted from formal prosecution, routed instead through a speedier and sometimes more creative court run by and for Detroit teenagers – with a layer of adult supervision.
Meanwhile, Teen Court gives something to students who staff the courtrooms. They get early immersion into the workings of the justice system. Classroom volunteers get comprehensive training then serve as jurors, bailiffs, and other court personnel.
Denby junior Terynee Bradshaw, who wants to be a lawyer, says the Denby program, headed by teacher Bill Pointer, is giving wings to her career ambition.
“Being a Teen Court juror gives you exposure to things you need in order to go to the places you want – like college and law school,” said Bradshaw. “You often hear how hard it is, but this kind of program keeps you from being discouraged.”
Juveniles who complete supervision under the Teen Court umbrella, rather than heading straight to the formal docket at the Lincoln Hall of Juvenile Justice, wind up avoiding more than a delinquency record. Their families sidestep hefty out-of-pocket expenses such as court costs and attorney fees.
First, juvenile offenders have to qualify. Offenders from Detroit must have committed only a misdemeanor offense such as shoplifting, alcohol possession, or disturbing the peace. They must have no prior record, be between the ages of 11 and 16, and be wiling to admit responsibility in the offense.
Those who meet basic requirements appear before a jury of similar-age peers at Denby or Southeastern. Before each hearing, jurors and others in the courtroom take an oath of confidentiality, vowing not to divulge names and other information revealed in the hearing to anyone outside the courtroom.
Teen Court jurors may appear powerful beyond their years, but there are important differences between Teen Court juries and typical juries in Third Circuit or 36th District courts. Teen jurors do not determine guilt or innocence – after all, Teen Court respondents already have acknowledged responsibility.
Teenage questions for teenage offenders
Instead of simply sitting and listening to testimony, Teen Court jurors do a lot of questioning. They ask offenders about the offense, about peers, family life, grades, drug and/or alcohol use, remorse, and other issues. Their mission is to detect factors driving delinquency. Jurors then use information from their in-court questions to craft sentences that help put juveniles on the right, non-offending track.
After jurors question youthful offenders and their parents, they head to a jury room, roll up their sleeves, and try to reach a consensus on a recommended sentence. Sentences can include community service, tutoring, drug testing, conflict resolution training, family counseling, no-contact with negative peers, written and/or verbal apologies, and completion of a shoplifting prevention program. A typical period of supervision is three to six months.
For juvenile lawbreakers, failure to comply with Teen Court sentencing requirements can bring steep consequences. Their case is referred back to juvenile court for formal prosecution. At Lincoln Hall, offenders can face stiff sanctions such as formal probation, electronic monitoring, drug testing, and even placement away from families in a residential juvenile facility.
One of the most stunning components of Denby and Southeastern Teen Courts is the setting. While Teen Courts across the U.S. often take place in local courthouses, Teen Courts DPS-style are set in classrooms that have undergone dramatic makeovers. The transformations make the classrooms-turned-courtrooms look similar to Frank Murphy or Lincoln Hall courtrooms.
Why youth courts are a runaway hit
Already, plans are underway to expand Teen Court to other DPS sites. These courts should be multiplied because inside glistening, real-looking courtrooms, real work takes place. There’s a reason the number of Teen Courts up and running in the U.S. has exploded. In 1994, only 78 youth courts were operating in the U.S. By 2002, more than 900 Teen Court programs were helping youths in 46 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Center for State Courts.
Research groups sing the praises of Teen Court proliferation. The Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP), part of the U.S. Dept. of Justice, applauds their bottom-line efficiency.
“State and local jurisdictions across the country are embracing teen courts as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system for their youngest and least serious offenders,” wrote Jeffrey A. Butts and Janeen Buck for OJJDP. “Many jurisdictions report that teen court increases young offenders’ respect for the justice system and reduces recidivism by holding delinquent youth accountable for what is often their first offense.”
In Wayne County, Teen Court has been led by Assistant Prosecuting Attorney Brian Morrow, deputy chief of the office’s Juvenile Division. Morrow helped shepherd both the Denby and Southeastern initiatives plus similar programs out-county, including one involving the Romulus Public Schools, the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office, and 34th District Court.
“It is especially persuasive when young people encourage fellow young people to get and stay on the right track,” said Morrow. “For example, we had one juvenile who was getting into a number of fights. Student jurors asked him if he thought he might like to box, and he answered yes. On their own initiative, a couple of teen jurors went and got information related to Denby’s boxing program and passed it on to the young man.”
Teen Court operates in tandem with the Safe Schools Initiative, Prosecutor Worthy’s wide-ranging collaboration with area schools. The Wayne County Prosecutor’s Safe Schools effort includes stationing assistant prosecutors inside selected Detroit and out-county schools, launching an anti-bullying hotline, and attacking truancy by holding special hearings targeting habitually absent students and/or their parents.
With a monstrous deficit and apparently no state or federal cavalry willing or able to
rescue Detroit’s schools, there’s certainly no shortage of problems in DPS. Still, Teen Court and the Safe Schools Initiative offer much-needed balance to the image of Detroit’s public schools. They remind us that, problems notwithstanding, inspirational programs and people are still a big part of this school system. Count all the dedicated student volunteers at Southeastern and Denby in that number.
The verdict of local Teen Court observers appears to be unanimous. The Prosecutor’s Office and DPS (plus partners Wayne State University Law School and the Crime Stoppers organization) deserve a solid “A” for this collaboration.
Danton Wilson, a former editor of the Michigan Chronicle, is an attorney with the Wayne County Prosecutor’s Office.