It wasn’t your typical court session last Tuesday night in Brunswick County.
Teens were sitting in the seats normally occupied by prosecutors and defense attorneys, and teenage girls and boys were scattered in the jury booth.
It was a night of Teen Court, a diversionary court where first-time defendants get a second chance to keep their criminal record clean. According to Teen Court Director Erin Hagan, Teen Court is a way for kids, ages 12-18, to admit responsibility for their actions and be tried by a jury of their peers.
Cases heard in court Tuesday ranged from possession of marijuana to simple affray. But the defendants in court won’t serve any jail time for their crimes, Hagan said.
In Teen Court, defendants receive a “constructive” sentence from their peers that includes a range of requirements, such as letters of apology to the victims’ and the defendants’ family, mandatory community service, as well as serving on Teen Court juries, according to Hagan.
Had the Teen Court cases been heard Brunswick County District Court, the defendants could have faced sentences of 45 days in jail for marijuana possession or 30 days in jail for simple affray, according to a Teen Court judge.
Not only is Teen Court an opportunity for young defendants to get a chance to make amends for their crime, it’s a great volunteer opportunity for high school students, Hagan said. The court session provides hands-on experience for students who can volunteer in a range of court careers such as attorneys, bailiffs and court clerks. Students also spend their volunteer time serving on the Teen Court jury.
Ken Shadid, 21, of Southport, began volunteering with the program in 2010 while in high school. Now a senior at Appalachian State University in Boone, Shadid is set to graduate in December with a degree in criminal justice and has landed an internship this summer with the District Attorney’s Office.
“Teen Court is what made me want to pursue a career in criminal justice. Before I got involved with Teen Court, I had no idea what I wanted to do. And it really fit with me and it made that decision for me,” Shadid said.
Shadid said he intends to pursue a career in the criminal justice field either in corrections, courts or law enforcement and hopes to eventually come back to work in Brunswick County.
“I enjoyed doing everything from the prosecuting, to defense, even being on the jury. It’s a great experience to get involved…it’s an eye-opening experience for teens that don’t really know anything about the court system,” Shadid said.
His teen court experience has come full circle, as Shadid has helped mentor high school students through the Teen Court process while interning for the District Attorney’s Office. As for the young defendants, Shadid said it is an opportunity for kids who have been in trouble with the law to get a second chance.
“That’s why I like doing it. Because you know you are helping kids turn their lives around and so it’s a great experience,” Shadid said. “Some of them have come back and continued volunteering after being a defendant. So it’s really changed some people. They just want to get involved…and that’s a really cool transformation to see.”
The Teen Court program began in 1999 and is a partnership between Communities in Schools of Brunswick County and the Brunswick County District Attorney’s Office, Hagan said. The program is made possible through financial support provided by the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council and Brunswick County Schools.
According to Hagan, each case can save the court system an estimated $2,000 per case. In the 2014-2015 school year, Teen Court served 81 defendants and has had more than 90 student volunteers in the program.
The court is facilitated by Hagan and adult volunteers, which include a group of prosecutors, local attorneys and a few retirees from the FBI and military. Volunteers meet with students before the court session starts to go over their cases, she added.
“We have an adult judge that facilitates the script, but the kids play the biggest roles,” Hagan said. “It’s quite a group of professionals that have great work experience and really help our kids through the process.”
Defendant referrals are sent from the Juvenile Services Intake Councilor to the Teen Court Coordinator, who decides if the case is appropriate for Teen Court, Hagan said. The juvenile is given the opportunity to admit responsibility and participate in the teen court program. Referrals can also come from school resource officers or district court prosecutors. Parents or guardians of the defendant are required to participate in the process.
The Teen Court Session is held from 6 to 8 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. The court can serve up to six defendants a month. Brunswick County is one of nearly 60 counties in the state hosting Teen Court sessions.