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COLUMN: Teen Court aids the criminal justice system

By: Rachel Stovall
March 20, 2018 Updated: March 20, 2018 at 4:05 am
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Teens have certainly gained themselves a unique new spot within the national political conversation. Whether we agree with their stances, we must admit that they may turn school safety into a lasting movement . Young people have always been change agents. And they push us - the older generation - to consider doing things differently.

Beyond the school safety and gun control narratives and protests, we see teens engaged in other efforts toward societal change. Across the county and in Colorado, we see teens pushing for change in the criminal justice system. They want more fairness for teen offenders. But they are not protesting, they are volunteering in actual criminal justice proceedings.

Teen Court is a community-based program by teens for teens. Carefully supervised of course, teens implement a peer-to-peer intervention that is a powerful and an effective alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system.

Yes, you heard this correctly. Kids are getting kids back on track in the criminal justice system. Teen Court programs only accepts juvenile offenders with first-time, nonviolent, misdemeanor charges. The teen offenders are seen by youth volunteers from the communities in which they live. The young volunteers act as peer attorneys, bailiffs, judges and jurors to youthful offenders. And they hand out real, binding, sentences.

Teen Court is a national movement in play for decades, sustained by several generations of teenage volunteers. According to the National Association of Youth Courts, there are 1,050 Teen Court programs across the country. Three cities in Colorado - Castle Rock, Parker and Colorado Springs - run these type of programs.

Our Teen Court in Colorado Springs has helped over 8,000 teens avoid the downward spiral of drugs and crime in the past two decades. The organization has nurtured a respect in youths for the rule of law. Respect for authority is cultivated in both the young offenders and teen volunteers. The organization has a clear record of helping teens to develop positive citizen attitudes, encouraging civic engagement and promoting educational success.

Colorado Springs Teen Court works in partnership with the municipal court system, Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff's Department and several local school districts. The teen volunteers hand down creative sentences promote that self-esteem, encourage positive life choices, and include service on future Teen Court juries. Offenders who complete their Teen Court sentence have their offenses expunged from their records. Positive peer pressure is the dynamic that makes all of it work.

I know that some of us stereotype teens as eating Tide Pods and being self-centered, but perhaps we are wrong. Teens in Colorado and across the country are making a difference. Maybe these children have more to offer in our political discourse than we have realized.

At Teen Court, the effectiveness of positive peer pressure can not be overstated. Locking up a juvenile in Spring Creek can cost $500 a day. Local teens in partnership with Teen Court staffs have saved this community millions of dollars by getting their youthful peers away from crime.

During the most recent data collection period, the recidivism rate of former Teen Court defendants was a remarkable 7 percent. "Once our kids complete their programs, we rarely hear from them again, which is great," said Teen Court Executive Director Morgan Mote. "Just based on the numbers, we know there are many past defendants from five, 10, and even 20 years ago who are now prospering members of our community. They are living proof that our programs make our community stronger."

Teen Court is seeking some of those past defendants to celebrate their mutual successes at a luncheon in April. Mote hopes to recognize as many past defendants as possible at the April 5 luncheon, and that some past defendants, or their parents, will be willing to share their Teen Court stories.

Past Teen Court defendants and parents are encouraged to contact her at 719-475-7815 or morgan@springsteencourt.org. The luncheon is 11:30 a.m. April 5 at the Doubletree by Hilton, 1775 E. Cheyenne Mountain Blvd. Admission is free. For information and reservations, visit csteencourt.org/index.php/newsevents/events/annual-luncheon.

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Rachel Stovall is a longtime community advocate and organizer. Also a fundraising, media and marketing consultant, Stovall is most known for singing with her dance band Phat Daddy and the Phat Horn Doctors.

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