Three Years of Teen Court Offender Outcomes

Article excerpt

Since the early 1980s, Teen Courts have provided youthful offenders with an alternative to the standard juvenile justice system. The substantive increase in youth courts, from fewer than 100 to over 1000, is evidence of the strong advocacy for these programs (National Youth Court Center, 2005). Further, according to current outcome evaluation data, youth court offenders have lower recidivism rates than offenders in other juvenile adjudicating formats (Butts, Buck, & Coggeshall, 2002). The majority of youth court programs focus on first-time offenders (Acker, Hendrix, Hogan, & Kordzek, 2001), although there is general acknowledgement that repeat youthful offenders constitute a major problem in the juvenile justice system (Umbreit, 1993). Recently, researchers reported that repeat offenders who were processed through Teen Court (TC) had lower recidivism rates than did a group of first-time Court Diversion (CD) offenders (Forgays & DeMilio, 2005). However, the sample was small and represented only a single year of the program. In the present study, three years of outcome data from the Whatcom County, Washington State Teen Court program are compared with outcomes from the county Court Diversion program.

One key difference between alternative youth courts and the typical juvenile justice approach is the make-up of the court personnel. In the standard juvenile justice approach, including CD programs, adults represent youths in court and adults decide on the sentence. In contrast, the youth court emphasis is on trial by peers--peer counsel, jurors, bailiff, clerk, and even peer judges. During the TC session, the adolescent offender observes the courtroom personnel--judge, bailiff, clerk, advocate--in socially responsible roles. Then the peer jury devises a sentence that provides the youth offenders with positive community activities to enhance their commitment and involvement. For example, one sentence component may include serving on a TC jury. This activity places the offender in a socially responsible role, working with other adolescents to develop a sentence that reflects community values. Thus, through observation of and involvement in appropriate civic behavior, the offender who is adjudicated through TC should be more attached to their community and, therefore, less willing to disrupt the community with delinquent acts.

Restorative Justice Approach

In the standard legal system, the crime is against the state or law--a rather abstract concept for an adolescent. The goal of the sentence is to punish the offender. By contrast, within the restorative justice approach, the crime is against a person or community (Bazemore, 2001; Bazemore & Maloney, 1994). In juvenile court or court diversion sentences, the offender is held responsible for the crime and must make restitution. The restorative justice sentence does not focus solely on punishment.

Rather, there are multiple goals--offender accountability, community protection, competency development, and youth advocacy (Maloney, Romig, & Armstrong, 1988). Community reparation activities, such as letters of apology or interaction with crime victims, are designed to educate the offending youth about the impact of the crime on the community and to provide the community with evidence of the offender's new understanding. A final component provides an avenue for the youth's "restoration" into the community as a socially responsible citizen (see Godwin, 2001 for a more in-depth discussion of restorative justice; Maloney & Holcomb, 2001; Presser & Van Voorhis, 2002). This restoration is crucial because offending youths typically need direction to reinstate themselves positively with their peers and adults. An effective restorative justice sentence pairs accountability with socially responsible behavior for the offender.

However, although the components of restorative justice are clearly delineated, examinations of their efficacy are few. …