Teen Court Lets Students Judge Their Peers
When a teen ends up in court for theft, trespassing, or other misdemeanor offenses, he or she usually ends up before a judge or magistrate. In Stark County, teens help other teens in a court program that’s marking its 20th anniversary.
Teen Court lets high school students become prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, and jury members to their peers. Adult hearing officers act as judges and help facilitate the court sessions that are held in Canton, Massillon, Alliance, and Louisville three times a week.
Grace Werren is a junior at GlenOak High School and started participating in Teen Court when she was 14 years old.
“I absolutely love it. I look forward to it every single week,” Werren said. “The friends that we make here and the things that we do here are just incredible.”
Around 40 students joined Werren at Stark County Family Court for a Thursday session of Teen Court. In all, students from nine county schools volunteer four hours a week for 14-week sessions.
“We don’t do anything bad to them – we’re just there to help them – but it’s a unique feeling because you want to create ways that personally benefit them and make them a better person,” Werren said.
The brainchild of Stark County Common Pleas Court Judge Michael Howard and Chief Probation Officer Joyce Salapack, more than 3,000 students have participated in Teen Court since its inception in 1995, where it grew from seven teens the first year up to 250 students this year.
“We tell them that this program was designed to help teens, not sit in judgment of them,” Salapack said.
The court’s intake department determines if the teen defendants can participate in Teen Court. They first must say they are guilty of the crime – the Teen Court participants never find the defendants guilty or innocent. Once approved for the program, the teen defendants receive a 45-minute hearing instead of the typical 15 minutes in Stark County courts.
“We often get the backstory and hear from the parents and hear from the child questioned by the hearing officer and by the teen jurors, and they get the whole picture of the child, which I think helps craft a disposition that will be effective,” Judge Howard said.
Once the teens hear from the defendants about how and why the crime took place, the jury decides on the appropriate punishment and receives approval from the hearing officer. The Teen Court participants often have the defendants apologize to their parents, write essays, or perform community service. Other creative options include mentoring youth or helping out with charity events. Once the defendants complete their sentence, their records are expunged.
Salapack estimates the rate of repeat offenders is between 10 to 15 percent and said it’s one of the “premier programs” for Stark County courts.
“We really thought it would have a beneficial effect on the teen defendants, but it really has a beneficial effect on the teen jurors and the participants as well because they are part of the system. They understand how the justice system works. I think they are proud of that,” Judge Howard said.
Judge Howard said the Teen Court participants tell him that it’s one of the most rewarding extracurricular activities they are involved in because they’re participating in real cases and helping out real people.
Joseph Iacino was a Teen Court participant all though high school and now works at Canton Municipal Court. He still volunteers twice a week and helps with the outtake process when the teen defendants receive their sentences.
“We make sure they have all the information they need and all the paperwork they need and they can ask questions,” Iacino said. “The fact that I got to sit in the courtrooms and do that, it makes me better at this part now. It’s easier to relate to the kids because I was one of the kids.”
In all, these students help process around 450 cases a year. Judge Howard said that’s the equivalent of hiring an additional hearing officer.
For the teens, it’s about giving their peers a second chance.
“It’s such a humbling experience to know what goes on in your community. To know that you have a structured family and a house and a great sense of friends or know the majority of what’s right and wrong – yes everyone makes mistakes, but you haven’t been in a situation that a defendant has been in. It’s definitely a very cool experience to be able to help that person out,” Werren said.
United Way of Stark County donates $66,000 for the program, which helps pay for extra court officials and to feed the volunteers. At the end of the school year, $16,000 goes back to the teens for college scholarships.