With Judge Leslie Jones
Kari Poss worked as a probation officer with the Department of Juvenile Justice (DJJ) for years before she heard about a mock trial program for teens. “I started reading and learning more about it, and I became so interested in the program,” she says. Not long after that, she found her life moving in a new direction.
After almost a dozen years with DJJ in Evans, she participated in the establishment of a Teen Court in Columbia County. Teen Court is more than just a mock trial program. The court hears and decides sanctions in real juvenile cases.
Focused on low level violations, Columbia County’s Teen Court allows first offenders to have their case heard by other juveniles who act as prosecutors and defense attorneys. When they get a new case, Teen Court participants have about two weeks to prepare.
In addition to their regular court sessions, teens in the program also participate in one mock trial training per month. During training, new participants in the program learn how to conduct court proceedings and participate in the actual court process.
When court is in session, the teens present a case, question and cross-examine witnesses, and make arguments. After their case is closed, the jury—which includes teens who have been previously sanctioned by the court—decides what sanctions should be imposed.
Common sanctions in teen courts include jury duty, community service, or writing an essay. “Part of their disposition is that they get two jury duties,” Poss explains. “So, we take a negative and turn it into a positive.” Poss finds that teens who are sentenced in the court come back. “Eight of the teens who are volunteers with the program now were sentenced before. Some of them have stayed with the program for two years. And one of the teens who started in the program with us five years ago is graduating this year. She is going into the Navy and has decided to be a JAG.”
Through their continued involvement, the teens volunteer their time, show their peers the importance of giving back, and change the perception that getting in trouble means getting into more trouble. Poss explains that “usually the system just throws away status offenders.” Because their crimes are low-level, they don’t get attention or grant funding.
Teen Court changes that calculus. “Truancy is really just an indication there are other things going on with the juvenile, says Poss. “When that child comes into Teen Court, we can find out more about them and get them the services they need. Then, by having them participate in the court process, we can help them see that they can take one little bad decision and make it positive with the help of the other kids.”
Columbia County’s program, like most of Georgia’s Teen Courts, rely on both adult and teen volunteers. “We start out talking with counselors in the schools to get the word out and find students who might want to volunteer as attorneys for the program,” Poss says. Local businesses donate funds for supplies, dress shirts for court, t-shirts, and food for court sessions, which are held in the evenings after school.
Poss says the program is also supported by the Juvenile Court Judges. She mentions two judges in particular, Judges Douglas Flanagan and Amanda Heath, who she says provide guidance and courtroom space and participate in training.
In Athens, the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute for Leadership Development and School of Law provide support for Athens-Clarke County’s Peer Court. Begun with the vision help of Lawyer and Fanning Faculty Member Emily Boness—who participated in a Peer Court in Anchorage, Alaska when she was in high school—the Athens program currently includes 40 active volunteers from four high school and four middle schools. Serving approximately 80 youth per year, the Athens court has held more than 500 hearings since its inception in 2012.
Judge Robin Shearer of the Clarke County Juvenile Court provides significant support to the program, but she largely does so from the behind the scenes, because she wants to allow the juveniles to run the court on their own. “Positive peer engagement is the most beneficial thing” teens in the program can gain, she explains in an informative video (which can be viewed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NNiiyFazomw#action=share). Her presence can outweigh that benefit. So, she watches from the back of the courtroom with obvious pride and joy as the teens make the courtroom their own.
Ultimately, participation in Teen Court increases participants’ civic involvement. DublinLaurens County Teen Court’s Facebook page shows the many ways in which Teen Court participants extend their involvement beyond the courtroom and into the community. Photo collages of teen court participants at local parades, putting together “Survival Kits” for the city’s First Responders, and supporting a military troop in Kuwait. https://www.facebook.com/ Dublin-Laurens-County-Teen-Court-545360912318806/. Turning teens who might otherwise be headed down a path that leads to nowhere—or worse, to prison—into dedicated and engaged citizens proves the success of teen courts.
Dublin-Laurens boasts Georgia’s oldest Teen Court, which was launched July 1, 1997, after Councilwoman Julie Driger heard a presentation about teen courts at a conference in 1995. Bound and determined to bring the program to Dublin, she convinced her fellow council members, the Sheriff, Juvenile Court officials, local police, the Department of Family and Children’s Services, and the county schools to get behind the program. In honor of her vision, the Teen Court now meets in the Julie S. Driger Courtroom once a month and serves the mission of “Making a Difference, One Teen at a Time.”
For Teen Court advocates, making that difference one teen at a time makes Teen Courts an obvious choice. Says Kari Poss, “I’d love to see a Teen Court in every county in Georgia.” With programs established in about 15 communities across the State, recent additions in places like Cobb County, and plans for Richmond County and other communities, that dream may soon be a reality.