Lincoln County Schools has implemented an exciting new program of restorative justice, “Teen Court.” It’s a court-based program wherein a teenage who has been deemed responsible for an action is tried by the teen’s peers. Student volunteers take the roles of clerk of court, bailiff, defense and prosecuting attorneys and jurors. Local attorneys and other community leaders volunteer and serve as teen court judges. Teen Court empowers youth to work on ways to reduce crime and violence in their schools and communities.
“It’s been found that a youth violator of the law is less likely to repeat the harms done when a jury of their peers decides the appropriate punishment,” Dr. Tim Beam, Lincoln County Schools director of federal programs, student services and pre-school said. “Teen Court is designed to do that. One of the good things about this program is that they do not determine guilt or innocence. The student has already admitted guilt. That’s one of the requirements for being offered what they call a voluntary diversion from criminal charges.”
Once the youth admits guilt, they’re referred to the Teen Court coordinator. If the case is appropriate for Teen Court, the coordinator will contact the responsible youth and their family. The youth, along with a parent or guardian, will be interviewed by the coordinator. The jury doesn’t determine guilt or innocence, they just determine the appropriate punishment. Hearings are held at the Lincoln County Courthouse.
“Hopefully that punishment interrupts the pattern of anti-social behavior, helps self-esteem, motivates self-improvement, a healthy attitude toward authority,” Beam said. “For the volunteers, it helps them have some leadership opportunities, some volunteer hours and opportunities.”
Training for jurors, attorneys, clerks of court, bailiffs and other positions are held at Battleground Elementary School one night a week. Court hearings are held in the evening as well.
Participating in the Teen Court program as a defendant is a privilege, according to Beam. Upon successful completion of ordered sanctions, the responsible youth will have no juvenile or adult criminal record of the offense.
“With this said, it is very important that youth understand the seriousness of the proceedings and agree to take responsibility for their actions,” he said. “Thankfully we’ve not had a lot of discipline issues yet. COVID has helped us with that.”
Teen Court has been in use in Gaston and Cleveland counties with great success. It’s been offered to Lincoln County through a grant.
Once the youth has his or her day in court, they are asked questions by both the prosecuting and defense attorney and closing statements are made. The youth is allowed to tell his or her account of what happened. The jury will then deliberate an appropriate sentence, which may include community service, a restorative justice process, teen court jury duty, letters of apology, drug assessments and life-skills classes. All requirements, as monitored by the Teen Court coordinator, must be completed no later than 90 days. Successful completion results in no criminal record.
The type of cases that may be heard in teen court include fighting, communicating threats, property damage, resisting law enforcement, disorderly conduct, trespassing, misdemeanor assault, possession of alcohol, possession of drug paraphernalia, simple possession of marijuana, cyberstalking/bullying, misdemeanor larceny, possession of weapon on school grounds, misdemeanor breaking and entering and possession of stolen property.