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What is Teen Court

Why Have a Teen Court?

The mission of the St Mary's County Teen Court is to provide first time misdemeanor offenders with an opportunity to restore relationships within their communities through informal methods of adjudication and provide them the resources to enhance their future decision making. These diversion programs are designed to teach responsibility and appropriate decision making while restoring a sense of safety in the community. This program is based on the philosophy that a youthful law violator does not continue to be an offender when a peer jury decides punishment. It provides an opportunity for first time offenders to avoid the stigma of a formal permanent juvenile record while focusing on youth accountability and development.

Teen Court offers a forum for criminal misdemeanor respondents, ages 11 - 17, and first-time traffic offenders under the age of 18, to explain their involvement in an offense in a structured environment where their words and actions are evaluated and judged by a jury of their peers. The opportunity is provided for respondents to accept responsibility for their actions by fulfilling sanctions such as community service hours, jury duty assignments, letters of apology, essays, special projects, or other sanctions the jury feels is appropriate.

Teen Court handles misdemeanor criminal, non-violent offenses including: theft, assault, disorderly conduct, vandalism, minor alcohol offenses, and criminal mischief. The St. Mary's County Teen Court Program also handles selected traffic citations for drivers under the age of 18 and referred from the St. Mary's County State's Attorney's Office as well as cases referred from the St. Mary's County Sheriff's Office. Juvenile cases addressed by Teen Court can be handled on a timely basis which frees up time and other resources for the Juvenile Justice and Court systems to handle more serious cases.

Even though participation in Teen Court is totally voluntary, not every youth who applies, or every juvenile who is arrested, is automatically eligible to participate in this unique program. Therefore, it is regarded as a privilege to be selected either as a volunteer, or as a respondent for participation in the Teen Court Program. Flagrant disregard of the principles of Teen Court will result in the privilege of participation being withdrawn.

Confidentiality, objectivity, respect for the rights of others, making a positive contribution to society, living within the law, acting responsibly and understanding the justice system are all fundamental Teen Court principles. These same principles also serve as the very foundation of the relationships and interactions between the various participants during the court proceedings.

The Way Teen Court Works

Once identified by the Teen Court Coordinator, the Department of Juvenile Services, The State's Attorney's Office, the Sheriff's Office, or other sources, as a youth who would benefit from Teen Court, the offending youth is given the opportunity to accept personal responsibility for their actions by acknowledging "involvement" (guilt) in the offense and to understand that their participation in the program is totally voluntary. Victim input (if applicable) along with parental consent and participation are essential and mandatory. Teen Court is designed to expedite the cases of first time misdemeanor offenders.

These are real cases where an arrest has been made or law enforcement officials have been involved. Cases are screened in advance for any prior arrest history and appropriateness by the Program Coordinator before being accepted to Teen Court for disposition.

When the case is to be presented in the "Grand Jury" format, the respondent will be questioned directly by the jurors concerning the facts surrounding the offense.

When the case is to be presented in the "Petit Court" format, the respondent will have a trained teen defense attorney assigned to the case who will do his or her best to bring out any and all mitigating circumstances in an effort to convince the jury to minimize the penalties the jury imposes under the Teen Court Sanction Guidelines. Representing the State of Maryland is a teen prosecuting attorney who will try to bring forward all the reasons that the jury should impose a stronger penalty within the sanction guidelines.

Following the hearing, the Teen Court Coordinator reviews the details of the disposition imposed by the jury with the respondent and his or her parents. All parties sign a contract agreeing to complete the imposed sanctions within the allotted timeframe (usually 90 days). If the respondent completes the sanctions within the prescribed time the case is closed without further formal action, or the referring judge is notified, if applicable, and normally the case is closed.

Teen Court sanctions are designed so the jury can custom fit them to the specific offense and circumstance and will involve at a minimum, future Teen Court jury participation, and community service.

Additionally, a typical sanction could also include any of the following sanctions within the sentencing guidelines:

  • Apology letter(s) to victim(s), parent(s), or other involved individuals
  • Research paper(s)
  • Newspaper Project
  • Prevention or education program(s)
  • Substance abuse screening/education program(s) (as appropriate)
  • In-school informal probation
  • Other sanctions deemed appropriate by the Teen Court Jury

Who Serves on the Teen Jury?

When the petit court model is used, the clerks, bailiffs, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and jurors will be St. Mary's County middle school and high school volunteers (Grades 7 - 12) and prior respondents. The prosecuting and defense attorneys will receive instruction and guidance from local attorneys, who can also serve in the capacity of Teen Court Community Judge. When the grand jury court model is used, the panelists will also be St Mary's County middle school and high school volunteers (Grades 7 - 12) and prior respondents. Volunteer jury members can receive hour for hour credit towards their Service Learning Project hours required for graduation.