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BOLIVIA—For every defendant who goes through Teen Court, one less defendant goes through Brunswick County’s criminal justice system—alleviating an over-burdened justice system.
Teen Court is funded through state grants, not county funded, so it saves Brunswick County taxpayer money, Teen Court Director Glenda Ansley said.
But of all the ways Teen Court benefits the court system and the taxpayers, Ansley said it benefits the participants—defendants and volunteers—the most.
In October, Ansley will have been with Teen Court for 10 years. Ansley joined the program in its infancy. Teen Court debuted in Brunswick County in January 1999.
Since that time, more than 850 teens have gone through Teen Court, meaning more than 850 first-time defendants got a second chance they wouldn’t have otherwise received if they had gone through the court system.
Teen Court is a second chance, Ansley said, but it’s not a free pass.
A partnership between the district attorney’s office and Communities in Schools of Brunswick County, the focus of Teen Court is education.
Teen Court is funded through Brunswick County’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, which, in turn, receives funding through the state’s Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention program.
“The beginnings and the reason it began is we have a lot of our kids getting in trouble with the law. And Brunswick County, at that time, needed diversion options for first-time offenders,” Ansley explained.
“When they first stick their toe in the water, we want to make sure that there’s consequences and that there’s education. [In] Teen Court, the focus is education; to make sure that they don’t re-offend.
“If we catch them there—at the every beginning—then we save them, we save the community, we save the schools. If you keep one child–one child from dropping out, one child from going to jail—you’re talking about saving thousands and thousands of dollars.”
Court in session
For the offenders, it gives them a second chance.
If an offender successfully completes Teen Court and does not re-offend, he or she doesn’t have a criminal record follow them into the future.
They also take responsibility for what they did, Ansley said. The program is voluntary. Teen Court defendants must admit they’re guilty and must tell the court why they did it and how they feel about it.
Eligible first-time, non-violent misdemeanor offenses include: larceny, shoplifting, possession of alcohol, marijuana or drug paraphernalia, non-firearm weapon on campus, simple assault, disorderly conduct or communicating threats.
Fights are handled through a mediation program rather than through Teen Court, but simple assaults are heard in Teen Court.
Though the offenses don’t have to occur on school property to go through the Teen Court system, teens are eligible for Teen Court as long as they are enrolled in Brunswick County Schools.
The youngest Teen Court participant was an 11-year-old who committed extensive property damage, and was required to complete restitution through the county’s Master Gardener program.
The attorneys are students, as are the jurors. District judges and local attorneys serve as Teen Court judges. The Southport-Oak Island Kiwanis Club members volunteer for Teen Court and serve as jury monitors to keep teens on task while deliberating the fate of their fellow students.
“They are huge supporters,” Ansley said. “They help keep them on target and make sure everyone has a chance to talk. It’s very student-driven.”
Ansley said Teen Court is a great experience for student volunteers as well as offenders. Student attorneys must prepare an opening statement, examine witnesses and evidence, and prepare closing arguments to student jurors, who deliberate the merit of the case.
“The defendants volunteer to participate. And so, since they volunteer and sign the sheet that they agree to participate then they are also agreeing to the sentence; that they will complete the sentence. And, in exchange for that agreement, the case is dismissed,” Ansley explained.
“If they don’t do that, then the case goes back to the referring source,” Ansley said, which can include appearing before court.
But for those who complete their Teen Court sentences, Ansley said there is a low recidivism rate.
“For the first year, those that successfully complete the Teen Court sentence, a year after they complete their sentence, 90 percent have not re-offended—at least 90 percent. Sometimes it’s better than that, but most of the time, 90 percent have not gotten in trouble with the law again,” Ansley said.
“Several years ago, we did a five-year study, and it looked like it was holding at about 85 percent had not gotten in trouble five years after completing [their sentences],” she said.
Teen Court makes a difference for both groups of students—the defendants and the volunteers.
“There’s many opportunities for them. To show that you’re volunteering in the community, it looks really good on any college resume they’re going to send in. It helps them get into college. It’s very good for them to participate in public speaking,” Ansley said.
“They learn to think quickly on their feet. A lot of their case development is only after the defense has actually already examined or questioned the defendant, so they have to be very quick on their feet.
“They do a great job. They’re usually very nervous the first couple times that they run court. But after that, it becomes old hat to them. They grow a lot. It’s really wonderful to see how they grow. They do a really good job. They really do.”
District attorney Rex Gore said Teen Court’s success has to do with its leader.
“When you start a program, you always have concerns about how it will be managed, how it will work, how it will grow and flourish. When we put Glenda in charge, it was a perfect fit,” Gore said.
“She is a blend of compassion, dedication and reality that the young people in the program need to see.”