A second chance in teen court
You are a typical high-schooler, heading into the bathroom with your friend during lunch break — and she pulls out a joint and lights it. You get caught for her transgression. For some teens, this is very much a reality. And now you’re off to court to be tried, judged and maybe sentenced.
Thankfully, the 25-year-old Teen Court offers an alternative to adult court that is significantly less frightening and offers a shot at redemption.
“We provide a second chance for those youth and hope to provide any support needed to keep that youth out of the formal system,” said Chanelle Delgado, acting manager for Santa Fe County Teen Court.
In Teen Court, teens volunteer to be jury members and attorneys whose job it is to “try” teens who have committed minor traffic or misdemeanor offenses.
Before teen lawyers can take on a caseload, adult volunteer attorneys must train them.
“The first training of the year is focused on the expectations and roles of a teen attorney and specifically the roles of prosecution and defense,” Delgado said. “The second training of the year is focused around a competency the teen attorneys want to focus on.”
Teen attorney Joaquin Bas said, “The responsibility of the attorney is to put aside all bias and … argue for the defendant as if it was you on the line.”
Misdemeanor cases and traffic cases are heard in Teen Court on an alternating weekly basis. The guidelines for each type of case vary slightly.
“Misdemeanors, or non-traffic court, provide the opportunity for our teen attorneys to prosecute and defend clients,” Delgado said. “Clients are either offered a plea or take the stand for a trial.”
On the other hand, traffic court does not include prosecution. “For traffic court, all clients provide their testimony for a jury and a judge without prosecution and defense present. The sentence is then given solely by the jury based upon the testimony of the youth and any responses to clarifying questions,” Delgado said.
But whether in traffic court or in misdemeanor court, the teen attorneys get to participate.
“You rotate around which jobs you do,” said teen attorney Zoe Colfax. “Sometimes you can judge, sometimes you are an teen attorney, sometimes bailiff, sometimes you work upstairs as a sentencer, sometimes you work in the jury room, helping them deliberate.”
While Teen Court is viewed as a less serious version of adult court, for kids ages 12 to 17, it offers a chance to see how the justice system works. “Through restorative processes, behavioral management tools, parental support and community engagement, our youth and families are screened for the most beneficial and appropriate resources for their unique needs,” Delgado said.
Through partnerships, Teen Court is able to provide numerous resources to students, such as trauma-based programming and support, parent and family-based services, and counseling.
According to a student from Capital High School who wished to remain anonymous, Teen Court “gives them a chance to re-evaluate what they are doing with their lives, and if they complete what they are told to do, no charges are pressed. It teaches them not to do that.”
The student was driving home one day between 8 and 9 p.m. and hit a DWI checkpoint set up near Ortiz Middle School by the Santa Fe Police Department. The car smelled of weed because he had smoked in the vehicle roughly two hours earlier. After the car was searched, the teen was charged with possession of marijuana and possession of drug paraphernalia. His sentence in Teen Court was 30 hours of community services and five jury-duty nights, and he was also subject to random drug testing.
The teen said he hasn’t smoked marijuana since that night. “It’s not worth it to get in trouble for that,” he said.
Bas said such cases are typical in Teen Court.
“The average case I deal with is a kid being caught with possession of marijuana on school grounds,” the teen attorney said. “Then after that, it would be alcohol possession on school property.”
Not all students agree that Teen Court is the best way to handle such transgressions. Another student from Capital High School who did not want his name in the newspaper said his sentence was far too steep for just speeding. “I’m fine with it, but I wish it was shorter because they also gave me four jury duties, which each one takes 11/2 hours, and to get there and back takes 30 minutes,” he said. “So, that’s like an additional eight hours. I thought it was excessive.”
But, nevertheless, he is glad that it kept his record clean. “Regular court would have left the speeding ticket on my record and it would have cost me more for insurance, and I would have also had to pay a court fine and a ticket fee,” he said.
Bas said the program reinforces the need to stand back and not be so quick to judge: “Just because people are in Teen Court doesn’t mean they are bad people.”
Elizabeth Walker is a senior at Capital High School. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.