A city-run Teen Court under consideration by City Council likely will not move forward due to jurisdictional issues, based on feedback from a committee tasked with presenting “neutral findings” on the possibility.
Teen Court is a vehicle through which juveniles may have an incident adjudicated by their peers rather than in the court system. Youth volunteers act as prosecutors, defense attorneys, judges and juries and mete out punishments, such as writing apology letters to those affected by the crime or performing volunteer duties in the community.
By having a case dealt with in Teen Court, perpetrators avoid a criminal record that could jeopardize college applications, job prospects or even the ability to rent an apartment.
A presentation of findings by the committee headed by Maricopa Organizational Health Supervisor Durel Williams at the Nov. 15 City Council meeting identified problems with such a court potentially operating under the city’s direction.
A court could operate if the city were to partner with Pinal Juvenile Court Services, which has jurisdictional authority to oversee Teen Court, however Williams said ARS Title 8, Chapter 3 regarding juvenile offenders, and specifically ARS 8-321, presents jurisdictional problems for the city.
“Also,” Williams said, “Pinal County was able to offer it because of its Juvenile Court Services Division. The school resource officer is responsible to make all referrals to teen court, but a city-sponsored Teen Court program would lack jurisdictional authority that is available through county Juvenile Court Services and its probation officers.”
Other issues that hurt chances of the court being implemented by Maricopa include hard and soft costs to the city, facilities costs and availability, insurance liability for participants and volunteers, long-term sustainability and availability of similar services through Pinal County agencies.
One of the attorneys proposing the program, and who had agreed to volunteer to oversee the legal aspects of Teen Court, was disappointed in the decision.
“It is problematic to me that there wasn’t a single legal professional involved in this decision to kill the Teen Court,” said Jeffrey Traversino, an attorney with a practice in Maricopa. “It seemed like there were a lot of people up there interpreting the statute who were not attorneys. I spoke to the city attorney after the meeting, and he said he wasn’t in these meetings.
“A lot of people who make these decisions have said they are proponents of Teen Court, but they are the ones who kept the city from moving forward on it. It felt like they wanted it to seem like they were for it, but then didn’t really support it.”
Pinal County Attorney Kent Volkmer favors Teen Court even though his agency eliminated it because it did not receive enough referrals to keep it viable.
“Those kids who enter that program, the chances of them ending up in the criminal-justice system are very remote,” Volkmer said. “It is only 10 or 12 percent who do. The benefit to the community is having kids being held responsible by their peers. Juvenile crime typically is nuisance stuff like shoplifting, disorderly conduct or fighting – things that make people feel less safe than they would otherwise. This ensures (lawbreakers) are held accountable by their peers and creates a safer, more tight-knit community.”
Councilmember Amber Liermann said the city is now looking into a school-run version of Teen Court.
Such a program would deal only with school offenses but still could have far-reaching implications for the students involved, she said.
“In a school program, the referrals would come from dean of students,” Liermann said. “So, if a student gets a 10-day, out-of-school suspension for fighting or vaping, for example, they could be referred by the dean to teen court and keep their school record clean and not show a suspension. Teen court has a very restorative goal, and that aligns with the health and wellness goals of the district in terms of serving the whole student.”
Liermann said she has received positive initial input from officials at Maricopa High School and Maricopa Unified School District Superintendent Dr. Tracey Lopeman about the program. She will be reaching out to Desert Sunrise High principal Marlene Armstrong, as well. Liermann added the city’s charter schools would be welcome to participate.
In addition to students who benefit from restorative aspects of the program, volunteers also could reap benefits, according to Liermann.
“Youth who are leaders and want to pursue careers within the judicial system, like becoming an attorney, judge or law-enforcement professionals, can use this to bolster their resume or college application,” Liermann said. “It provides leadership opportunities and builds skills that will benefit them in their careers. It also provides opportunities for them to be connected to other resources that can help with college applications. There are a lot of great things about this program.”
Mayor Nancy Smith likes the idea of the court to prevent a one-time lapse of judgement from affecting a young person’s entire life.
“I think it’s a great way to keep minor things off kids’ records,” Smith said. “The more people I talked to who have experience with Teen Court, the more I saw the advantages. In many places it is done within the school system. They create a club around it and kids that have an interest in being lawyers, judges or counselors, it gives them an activity for their college-application resume.”
Smith cited potential privacy issues as a drawback to the program.
“We would need to seriously look at the confidentiality of the program because many parents don’t want their kids’ private issues to become public knowledge,” she said. “Even though the kids are sworn to secrecy, it’s really hard to control that, and if people see their information starting to get out, that would wreck the program. But I know there are successful Teen Courts both in and out of schools, so I like it but I’m a big privacy advocate.”