Some Sampson County teens who break the law are being given a second chance twice a month — a chance to remedy a one time bad decision that could have the potential impact of destroying their future.
Danelle M. Graham, the county’s 4-H teen Court and Juvenile Restitution coordinator, works on the program that gives first time offenders a way to restore relationships with their families as well as those that they have harmed. Offenders can be as young as 10 and old as 17.
“Teen court is a prevention program,” said Graham. “It gives a second chance.”
“The program is for teens with first time misdemeanors,” Graham added. “Instead of going to juvenile court they go before their peers.” Offenders are recommended through School Resources Officers, or SROs, the juvenile court system, as well as parents.
“Teen court is held twice a month,” stated Graham. “It is held at the courthouse annex building at 6 p.m. on the first and third Thursdays of the month.” Anyone who wants to come watch needs to be present in the courtroom by 5:55 p.m., she said, noting that the doors are locked at 6 p.m. sharp.
“It is open to the public,” she added. “It is a little different than regular court. Because we are working with juveniles, confidentiality rules apply.” Observers cannot talk about the case outside the courthouse to anyone who was not present during the trial.
“We have both a written and oral oath of confidentiality,” Graham explained. “The oath is administered to everyone there.”
Right now the program only has a few defendants that have advanced over to the juvenile court. The program has served over 100 defendants since October 2010 when Graham took over the program.
“Before they can participate, the offender has to admit guilt,” she added. “They just come to us for punishment sanction purposes.”
“We have two different types of Teen Court, a traditional court as well as a tribunal,” explained Graham.
The traditional court is staffed by all youth except the judge. That means that the prosecution, defense, bailiff, clerk and jurors are all youth volunteers.
“I started in the eighth grade because of the people in the jury,” said Skyler Simmons. “I like helping people out. The jury was also the reason, Mikiela Ashley started.
“I started junior year because of one of the jurors,” commented Ashley. “I can make a difference in another teenager’s life.”
The tribunal is a setting where the students are allowed to participate in the questioning of the defendant and then the group deliberates in the jury room to determine the appropriate sanctions. The judge is also an adult in a tribunal as well.
The judge is an adult volunteer who keeps the mock trial running smoothly under the supervision of the program director and other adults who work with the program.
Steven Lindquist is a judge for Teen Court, and he said he has been working with the program for over 10 years, since the sixth grade.
“I’ve always been interested in law enforcement,” stated Lindquist. “I found out about Teen Couurt at an assemble at school to recruit volunteers.”
There is also a Sampson County Sheriff’s Deputy on hand as well.
“Volunteers have to go through five hours of training with an exam at the end,” Graham explained. “That training event is held every four months. If someone wants to volunteer they can contact me or go through another volunteers. I also bring applications with me to teen court.”
“I started Teen Court in high school,” stated volunteer Monica Baldwin. “I love volunteering and that’s why I am here.” To participate in teen court, the teens must have their parents approval.
“Teen Court enhances leadership and communication skills,” said Graham. This causes the volunteers to learn how to work well with others as well as work well as a team. When the decisions are made about sentencing everyone has to be on the same page she said. There are a variety of sanctions that can be placed upon the defendant including apologies both verbal and written, essays, jury terms, community service and tutoring.
Graham said to watch for signs of trouble with teens, such as withdrawing or becoming suddenly more irritable. Graham had one parent point out that there was a drastic change in the way the student was dressing. It is also important to keep track of alcohol if it is in the home. Kids will put it in a bottle to camouflage the contents, such as clear liquor in a Sprite bottle.
“Parents often say they don’t have time, but if you can spend five to ten minutes on the phone talking with a friend that is time you could have spend talking with your child,” Graham stated.
“We have a great support system with parents for the teens,” added Graham. “Parents are very proactive in this program.”
She said that the program works well because of the collaboration of everyone, from the SROs and officers, to schools, parents, and staff. Everyone has to work together she explained.
“One broken link can make the difference,” she said.”The offenders have to want to change, and until they want to change it is not going to happen. They have to learn a new way to handle problems at school.”
Emily M. Hobbs can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 122 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.