When adults talk about peer pressure and teens, it’s often in connection with drug use, bullying, criminal acts or some type of bad behavior.
However, a local court program uses peer pressure in a positive way to not only teach teens about the judicial system but also to prevent youthful offenders from moving on to more serious crimes.
Last week, 20 high school students were sworn in as new members of the Madison County Teen Court after they completed five training sessions. During the training, the students learned how to act as prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, clerks and jurors in determining the sentence for actual juvenile offenders.
Typically, first-time youthful offenders, who have already admitted their guilt in a specific misdemeanor or violation, are referred to teen court. The offender’s case is presented by teens acting as attorneys, and a jury, also made up of teens, decides on an appropriate punishment.
The culmination of the teen court students’ training was a mock trial followed by a swearing-in ceremony conducted in the third-floor courtroom at the Madison Hall of Justice.
Brianna Walters was one of the new teen court training graduates.
“I’ve been in mock trial for a couple of years, and it’s prepared me for this but this is so much different,” Brianna said. “It gives you a hand to help kids that you know need it, and just kind of gives you an insight to how (a trial) would really be.”
How teen court works
Court-designated workers refer certain juvenile cases to teen court, according to coordinator Neely Caudill. The offender has already admitted his or her guilt, she added.
The role of the teen court is to determine the appropriate punishment and what is the “best outcome” for the case, Caudill said.
The juvenile gets to tell the court about the incident and any extenuating circumstances. Teen court members act as both the defense and prosecuting attorneys, and teens also serve as bailiffs and court clerks.
The remaining Teen Court members make up the jury, Caudill said.
Madison District Judge Brandy O. Brown presides over Teen Court, Caudill said. The other two district court judges, Earl Ray Neal and Charles Hardin, also preside over the court if Brown is not available.
“The judges are always there to help,” Caudill said.
Assistant County Attorney Jud Patterson also helped with the training, Caudill said.
The cases typically involve first-time offenders and can range from shoplifting to marijuana and drug possession. The Teen Court also can address traffic violations, truancy, trespassing and property damage offenses.
The jury has several options for “constructive sentencing” in teen court cases, according to the training manual. The sentences can involve community service, financial restitution, teen court jury duty, letters of apology and educational seminars. The jury also can recommend counseling.
If offenders successfully complete their sentences, their records are cleared, according to Caudill.
Caudill emphasized that confidentiality is of utmost importance and is stressed at every training session. Teen court members may not talk about the cases amongst themselves (unless it’s part of prosecuting or defense team preparation), at school or even with their families.
“This is not something to take lightly, it’s people’s lives,” Caudill said.
This is the first year Caudill, who is the Madison District Court legal assistant, has led the teen court program. Assistant coordinators are Linda Grubb and Kathy Tudor.
Caudill was a participant in the Clark County Teen Court for four years. During her time with the program, she often saw teens who were sentenced by their peers come back later to join the teen court staff.
“It’s great for college applications and future law students,” she said. “It’s such a good thing for students.”
Sarah Hogsed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 624-6694.
Chief Photographer Kaitlin Keane contributed to this report.