ORANGE COUNTY, Fla. – When teenagers are arrested in Orange County, they might catch a break - if it’s their first arrest and the crime is a misdemeanor such as theft, vandalism and battery or a minor felony like grand theft auto or burglary.
The State Attorney’s Office regularly recommends first-time youth offenders who are accused of committing minor crimes to Teen Court, a teenager-run mock courtroom with real rules and real penalties.
The main advantage of Teen Court: teens who make it through the court hearing and successfully complete their sentence have all charges against them dropped and avoid a potentially damaging criminal record as an adult.
Judge Robert Egan, an administrative judge at Orange County’s Juvenile Courthouse, oversees the Teen Court program.
“They [the teen offender] do need to admit their wrongdoing,” Egan said. “They will be assigned an attorney, a peer perhaps their same age, which are volunteers, and there will be a prosecutor, also a teenage volunteer.”
The teenaged prosecutor and defense attorney are often students interested in law who volunteer their time to learn the judicial system.
The jury is also made up of teen volunteers.
“They hear evidence and they learn how to do public speaking and courtroom decorum," Egan said.
Egan said the teenager jury hands down the sentence.
“And because the child has admitted guilt there’s going to be a finding of delinquency or guilt,” Egan said. “But their peers are the ones who are going to mete out the sanctions, which can range anywhere from community service hours, typically we see from 15 to 100 (hours), if there’s victim restitution that needs to be paid that will be assessed as well, they’ll have to write letters of apology if it’s a victim crime. And they may have to enroll in a drug evaluation, random drug testing, things like that.”
Egan said part of the punishment for the teen includes being required to serve on a future jury.
“And what we’ve seen is that has a greater effect on a young person charged with the offense than maybe an adult telling them they did a bad thing,” Egan said. “Sometimes if someone of your own age tells you, ‘hey, you did something wrong and we need to do something about it,’ that just seems to carry more weight than grown-ups telling these kids what they did wrong and lecturing them a bit. The recidivism rate in Teen Court is much lower than a child who goes through juvenile probation.”
Egan said teenagers who complete Teen Court re-offend less than 10% of the time, much lower than the traditional juvenile justice system.
Last year, 202 Teen Court cases were completed and more than $5,400 was paid in restitution to victims, according to Egan.
Teen Court started in the 1960′s and the program has spread across America.
“Everybody in the program is treated the same regardless of their background, where they come from or what they look like,” Egan said. “And it does give all of them an opportunity to avoid a long-standing juvenile delinquency record. And it basically gives everybody a strength fresh start no matter who they are.”
Egan said Teen Court is the right program at the right time in the U.S. but it’s also the right program anytime.
“What I try and focus on is what we can control,” Egan said. “I cannot control parenting at home, or what happens at the school, I can’t control the police officers. What we can control is what goes on inside this courthouse especially with respect to Teen Court. And so when we have control over the environment, we do have success.”
Teen Court cases are being held virtually because of the coronavirus pandemic but normally they’d be inside a juvenile courtroom at the courthouse.
Teens volunteered more than 4,100 hours in 2019 in Teen Court and adults volunteered more than 924 hours, according to Egan.