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TCL > October 1998 Issue > Teen Court: What All The Hype is About

October 1998       Vol. 27, No. 10       Page  63

Teen Court: What All The Hype is About
by Michele L. George

For a number of years now, teen courts have been operating throughout the United States. The goal of teen courts is to teach respect for the law and to give juvenile offenders a chance to take full responsibility for their actions before a jury of their peers. Teen courts both empower juveniles and give them a sense of self-worth about their futures.

Snow Mountain Ranch, YMCA Camp of the Rockies, August 14-16, 1998
Teen courts provide an opportunity for adults working within the legal system to make a direct impact on the minds of the young, to influence and pass on the wisdom of many years of experience and education, and to make a difference in their lives and instill a sense of direction.

Even if just a few juvenile offenders successfully complete their sentences, remain law abiding, raise their grades, or express interest in attending college or continuing their education, the teen courts will have succeeded. And teen courts are succeeding!

The Colorado Program

There are over seventeen teen courts in operation in Colorado, all with the objective of teaching teens, both offenders and non-offenders, that the law is not just another prime-time show on television. The following communities have teen courts: Arvada, Aurora, Boulder, Colorado Springs, Denver, Eagle County, Lake County, Westminster, Lakewood, Loveland, Moffat County, Pueblo, Summit County, Clear Creek County, Woodland Park, Huerfano County, and Ft. Collins (Weber Junior High School).

Through teen court, students may act as prosecutors and defense attorneys, jurors, bailiffs and, in some districts, judges. Each teen court adopts a program that best suits its system. Most operate at the municipal court level; Huerfano County is the only one that operates at the district court level. Teen courts vary greatly in the number of sentencing hearings they conduct, ranging from as few as eight to as many as 170 sentencing hearings a year. The teens come from junior and senior high schools from within the teen court's municipality or district. Most courts operate during the school year, with a few operating all year around.

All teen courts require the juvenile offender and his or her parents voluntarily to agree to proceed to teen court for sentencing. The juvenile offender is required first to admit his or her guilt in the court with jurisdiction over his or her offense. Once this process has taken place, the juvenile is given a deferred adjudication with a time limit within which to complete the teen court sentence.

Failure to complete the teen court sentence results in revocation of the deferred adjudication and sentencing by the court of jurisdiction. Completion of the sentence results in dismissal of the charge. The juvenile offender is represented by a defense team, and a prosecution team is assigned to represent the State. The case proceeds to a sentencing hearing in which each side has an opportunity to present evidence and testimony that mitigates or aggravates the juvenile's sentence.

Peer Group Sentencing

The most fundamental component of the teen court concept is that negative peer pressure is replaced by positive peer pressure. Simply appearing before a jury of one's peers is often punishment enough. The teen jury decides on the appropriate sentence. Sentences generally include teen court jury service, community service work, letters of apology, curfews, essays, drug/alcohol/anger treatment or counseling sessions, anti-theft classes, and any other constructive sentencing options the jury believes to be appropriate, subject to final judicial approval.

Teen defendants often receive more creative and stricter sentences than those imposed by adult judges. Teens have their own code for judging unacceptable conduct. With keen insight, they determine what may be an appropriate justification or simply an excuse for bad behavior and establish punishments accordingly. Given the authority to regulate one another's conduct, these teens do an admirable job.

Teen Court has its skeptics, but teen attorneys are held to similar standards as "real" attorneys. Since the cases are real cases with real consequences, the students are trained to prosecute and defend cases to the best of their ability. Some courts even require the students first to pass a teen court bar exam and sign a code of ethics.

Before they are permitted to act as teen attorneys and jurors, the students must demonstrate a clear understanding of their responsibility for competently and fairly determining a juvenile's punishment. Each year, the Colorado Association of Teen Courts holds an annual retreat in an effort to further educate and train students in the necessary skills to be used in their teen courts. A report of the 1998 retreat follows.

Colorado Association of Teen Courts 1998 Retreat

The Colorado Association of Teen Courts ("C.A.T.C.") embarked on its Third Annual Retreat August 14 and ended its program on August 16. The retreat was held in the YMCA Camp of the Rockies at Snow Mountain Ranch. In attendance were more than seventy students and coordinators from various teen courts throughout the state.

This year's retreat was special because Huerfano County Teen Court Coordinator Michele George recruited two attorneys, a judge, and a Colorado Bureau of Investigations investigator to spend an entire day teaching the students.

The retreat began on Friday, with arrivals making new friends and renewing friendships made at prior retreats. Friday night, the students and coordinators met for introductions, games, and "trust exercises." Saturday's agenda was presented and a study guide was handed out to each student and coordinator. Students were encouraged to read the case scenario that would be used by the educators. The students were divided into four groups and rotated through four classes.

The first group started with "Ethics for Teen Court." This class was taught by Third Judicial District Court Judge Claude Appel. Judge Appel founded the Huerfano County Teen Court, and has been a member of the Colorado Bar Association Ethics Committee since 1991. Judge Appel presented the students with hypothetical ethical questions that could arise during the prosecution and defense of a teen court case. He questioned the students on what they would do if presented with various ethical issues and ended each hypothetical with the actual Colorado Rules of Professional Conduct governing such questions.

The students then moved onto "Investigations." This class was taught by Linda Holloway of the Colorado Bureau of Investigations. Holloway caught the students' attention with vivid details of past cases she has investigated. The students had an opportunity to take advantage of Holloway's expertise in investigations by going step-by-step through the procedures for investigating a crime and a crime scene. The students evaluated this class as the most fascinating.

Following lunch, the students attended a session entitled "How to Prepare a Case for Trial," taught by Kevin McGreevy of the Office of the Colorado Public Defender, Arapahoe Regional Office. McGreevy previously was a mentor attorney in the Huerfano County Teen Court during his service as a deputy state public defender in the Third Judicial District. With McGreevy's help, the students were better able to understand the importance of developing a theme for their cases and of maintaining that theme through to the conclusion of the case. The students were divided into smaller groups to discuss the hypothetical case and come up with their own themes. It was surprising how differently each student evaluated the case and how each would prepare the case for sentencing.

The students completed their training sessions with Heidi Hugdahl, a shareholder in Nathan, Bremmer, Dumm & Meyer, P.C. in Denver. Hugdahl gave each group of students insight on "Trial Tactics in the Courtroom." The students again were divided into smaller groups, and each group was given the task of preparing and presenting an opening statement, with drama!

Officers and Thanks

During Saturday's education sessions, the members of the C.A.T.C. met and elected David Chaffee, Denver Teen Court, President of the Association; Shawna Moore, Lakewood Teen Court, Vice-President; Michele George, Huerfano County Teen Court, Treasurer; Karen Rhodes, Aurora Teen Court, Secretary. These members were elected to two-year terms. The Association also discussed the possibility of an outreach program with other teen courts and individuals wishing to begin a teen court.

The Third Annual Retreat was a great success. Plans are in the works for next year's retreat. The C.A.T.C. would like to extend sincere thanks to Judge Claude Appel, Kevin McGreevy, Heidi Hugdahl, and Linda Holloway--each of whom took time to teach four one-hour classes! The Association also would like to thank Shawna Moore for coordinating the location and reservations for the retreat. A very special thanks to Andy Hastings, a student with the Lakewood Teen Court, who aided in the coordination of the camp and was kind enough to arrange for this year's t-shirts.

The Association will be discussing plans to attend the National Teen Court Conference slated for May 1999 in Anchorage, Alaska. Please keep an eye and ear out for your local teen court's efforts to raise funds for its programs and support them. After all, these kids are our future.

If you are aware of any teen court not listed or are interested in starting a teen court in your area, please contact David Chaffee at (303) 640-5653.

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