In a Graves County courtroom, Chief District Judge Deborah Crooks is swearing in about 20 of the newest members of the county’s Teen Court program. Graves County is one of only 25 Kentucky counties to offer the program. Teen Court allows first time juvenile offenders who admit to low level crimes to plead their case and receive a sentence from a jury made up of other teens.
Those teens come from local high schools and perform almost every job you’d see in an adult court. Graves County High School student Joshua Drouin,
“Each student can choose between a clerk, a bailiff, either a prosecution or defense attorney. Those are the main roles that we can play, we can’t be the judge. And the juries are selected at random at each meeting.”
Local attorneys train students like Drouin to fill those various roles. They give students advice on how to present their case, as well as tips on courtroom etiquette and public speaking. Attorney Jessica Flinn is the Teen Court coordinator, but she started out as a coach for the defense teams. She explains their role,
“They have the responsibility of meeting with their actual defendant prior to our court date and they work up a defense, a lot of mitigating circumstances, present their client’s case in the best possible light.”
The clients the teen defenders represent come from the Graves County juvenile court system. Judge Deborah Crooks is responsible for finding defendants for Teen Court. Crooks says they have to meet several criteria to be considered. She says,
“They have to be a first-time offender, normally they are violations or misdemeanors or a very low felony. But most, I would say 99 percent of them are violations or misdemeanors. It could be traffic offenses, it could be shoplifting, it could be status offenses such as truancy.”
Crooks says teens also have to admit to the crime and accept the diversion to enter the program. She says they have to admit to the crime because the Teen Court is just a sentencing court. The jurors don’t decide guilt or innocence, just the punishment the defendant receives. Crooks says they can hand down a variety of sentences,
“They can order them to do community service. They can order them to get assessed for some sort of counseling such as substance abuse counseling or mental health counseling if they see a need for that. They can order them to take part in educational workshops. In rare cases they can order restitution.”
But the reason for the Teen Court program isn’t to let kids punish other kids, or let aspiring attorneys practice the trade. It’s there for the offenders benefit. The hope is that involving a teen’s classmates in the judicial process will bring some positive peer pressure into their life. But more importantly, says Coordinator Jessica Flinn, it gives those students a second chance,
“This is a diversion program so those students are able to come to teen court, be sentenced by the teen court jury, and if they complete all of the sentence that the teen court jury asks them to complete, then this is taken off their record.”
Teen Court member Joshua Drouin says that’s an important part of why he and other students volunteer for the program. He says,
“It allows us to help those who have had one slip-up. I mean, their entire life shouldn’t be ruined because one incident in high school or middle school.”
The Kentucky Teen Court program enters its 21st year of service this spring, and at least for now it seems that as long as there are teens making mistakes, they will have peers willing to give their time to set them straight.