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A second chance at teen court for juvenile offenses

A second chance for first-time offenders. That is what is being offered in one Maryland jurisdiction, as teens have taken over the criminal court. An innovative program in La Plata allows those accused of first-time juvenile offenses to have their records wiped clean by choosing alternative punishment handed down by a jury of their peers. It's called Charles County Teen Court, and it looks like it is here to stay.

The effort started back in March 2001, using just a couple courtrooms to mete out the alternative penalties for youngsters' violations. Now, a whopping 80 people run up to five simultaneous sessions twice a month in order to manage the growing caseload. The young people who go through teen court are generally charged with misdemeanors; they are characterized as "good kids" who simply made a bad decision.

Youth court may seem unnecessarily light-handed. After all, these youngsters did break the law; do they really deserve a second chance? Experts answer with a resounding "yes." Youth courts have been shown to be far more cost-effective than traditional criminal trials. Further, they demonstrate a decreased rate of recidivism -- or repeat offenses -- along with increased youth involvement in the community. Those who finish the youth court program are far less likely to face future allegations. In 2013, only 4 percent of participants failed to complete their teen court sanctions, showing the popularity of teen court.

The penalties in these misdemeanor cases range from writing letters of apologies to completing community service and performing other tasks. Some teens have even been asked to plan their own funerals. One teen shoplifter was banned from entering retail stores for two months without supervision.

Teens who make a single bad decision should not be relegated to the world of hardened criminals. They should not be dismissed as habitual offenders simply because of one error in judgment. This teen court allows youngsters another chance, providing them with the options they need to avoid long-term consequences and get back on the straight-and-narrow. Young people who have committed minor violations deserve access to this type of fair legal proceeding.

Source: Fairfield Citizen, "In Md. court, teen takeover offers a second chance" Zach C. Cohen, Apr. 20, 2014

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