I was recently asked by a local publication to write a piece on Teen Court and have been struggling to figure out just how to convey such a powerful program to you (the reader) in a concise amount of words. I currently practice as an attorney, and we are not exactly known for our brevity. And at this point in my life, I appear to be every bit the young(ish) attorney: constantly in a suit and tie, strokes of grey throughout my hair, and not handcuffed or shackled. So why am I writing about a program that serves to give juvenile offenders a second lease on their life? Well, I was one of them, too.
I’m still the kid over a decade removed from facing more felonies than I can count on both of my hands and feet. I got caught burglarizing cars, was arrested, and narrowly escaped being branded a felon by a miraculous allowance into Teen Court of Sarasota. Due to my actions, my early education on the law and juvenile justice came from my own experiences, and not in a classroom. Thanks to my placement in Teen Court, I managed to learn from that experience, to grow from it, and even not to repeat it. In fact, my current career now allows me to utilize that experience to protect the rights and interests of my fellow Florida citizens. All too often, juveniles that break the law experience the punitive hand of the judicial system, but are not given the services or opportunity to learn and grow from their mistakes. They become another statistic – just another cog in the wheel of a criminal “justice” system that seems to produce more criminals than it prevents. Fortunately for me and thousands like me, Teen Court was able to provide the services and lessons necessary to correct our behavior, and gave us the opportunity to divert the paths upon we had mistakenly embarked. So how does Teen Court do it? What sort of program can keep over eighty percent of its respondents from reoffending?
Not only is Teen Court a quasi-judicial proceeding consisting of a sentencing hearing for early offending juveniles that takes place in an actual courtroom with teenage attorneys, bailiffs and clerks, but it is also a continuum of services (counseling, mentoring, empowerment and more) that is provided by a caring staff of professionals who invest in every child as if that child were their own. Respondents get to learn about civic responsibility by performing community service, and therefore see firsthand the effect that their actions have on those around them. They have to return and serve on the jury of other incoming juvenile offenders, thus taking responsibility for the wellness and improvement of their fellow citizen. And they are afforded the time and tools for introspection, and a second chance to truly to change their life. A successful completion of the Teen Court program results in a dismissal or non-filing of the charge or offense for which that child came in to the program, meaning a true second chance, a clean slate.
These are not just inspirational words that are being printed to sell you on Teen Court, or to drum up support for one of the only diversion programs that operates as a non-profit and continually struggles to secure enough funding to provide so many necessary services. Truth be told, the program does not need to be “sold,” but I would like you to buy in. In fact, the thousands who have been given a second chance by Teen Court would like you to buy in. Our community is well-stocked with young professionals who have benefitted from Teen Court, but you might not know their stories. With a recidivism rate in the low teens, and over 400 juveniles served per year in our community alone, there are thousands out there just like me – thousands who could be writing this same article. Like them, I had been scared, embarrassed, and downtrodden by my initial experience, and those emotions eventually became imprinted on my psyche like large scars. As with most scars, its owner’s eyes initially see them as abhorrent or ugly, but with time comes the acceptance of such blemishes. Eventually, one’s physical scars become a point of pride, as they tell a story of overcoming and survival. Teen Court is my point of pride, and I am so happy to be able to tell its story.
If you, your child, or a loved one is facing a criminal charge and concerned with the protection of your rights and interests, contact the Mack Law Firm to discuss what we can do for you.