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Teen Court Program revamped and re-energized

by Lindy Williams
Burns Times-Herald

The Teen Court program is being revamped and re-energized by the Harney County Juvenile Department. Lori Cheek, Harney County Juvenile Department Director, and Brooke Nyman, Probation Officer, are working together to reinstate Teen Court as a viable program within the juvenile crime prevention program.

Teen Court is a program in which teenagers who have admitted to an offense are tried by a jury and courtroom of their peers. The prosecutor, defense attorney, bailiff, and jury positions are all filled by teenagers who have  been given a brief tutorial by either a defense or prosecuting attorney. The judge duties will be performed by a practicing judge or court magistrate.

Before going to Teen Court, cases are referred to the juvenile department, and are only sent to the program if they meet certain criteria. There are also parameters set on the punishments, and the teen jury must choose a sentence that lies within those bounds. Nyman stated that these boundaries prevent overly harsh or lenient punishments.

“A lot of people worry about it being a popularity contest, and what we do to combat that is that we have a good working relationship with the District Attorney’s office, and they screen the cases before Teen Court even happens. They help us develop sentencing guidelines appropriate for the charge, so we basically set, for community service for example, a minimum number of hours, and a maximum number of hours.”

Nyman spoke of the many benefits associated with Teen Court. For instance, sentences do not go on the individual’s criminal record, and many individuals are able to see the consequences of their actions without suffering long-term negative affects.

Some of the most commonly used sentences include community service, written essays, traffic school, tobacco education, and apology letters.

“In Teen Court, there are no monetary judgements, no fines, or things of that nature. We encourage, always, a parent to be present with the kid. And they have the opportunity to speak in court because, a lot of the time, kids face harsher punishments at home than they do in court, so it’s a good opportunity for the parent to let the jury know that they have been held accountable at home,” Nyman said.

Teen Court can also benefit teenagers in terms of volunteering community service hours for scholarships. She said that larger communities have many opportunities for volunteering with food banks, shelters, and other organizations. While Harney County does have places where teens can seek out hours, they may be unaware of them or unmotivated to do so. Teen Court is one service opportunity that the youth can take advantage of.

“In addition to community service, I think it leads to things like debate clubs and student government. So we’ve really encouraged both Crane and Burns to get involved and use this program with their kids,” Nyman said.

The Teen Court program has been working closely with law enforcement to increase referrals. All sentences in Teen Court will be determined by a sitting circuit court judge, who presides over all the cases.

A few common referrals include tobacco, illegal cellphone use, seat belt violations, and speeding. Higher level crimes will not be tried through Teen Court.

As for those teens who wish to act a prosecuting or defense attorneys in a case, they will be coached by professionals before court. The District Attorney’s office volunteers one of their attorneys to council the teen acting as the prosecuting attorney on a case. The teen will have the opportunity to sit down with the DA and go over developing a line of questioning, what kind of questions they would ask, and how to prosecute a case.

“On the other side, if a kids wants to be a defense attorney, we have a volunteer defense attorney, usually John Lamborn who’s been doing it for several years, who comes over and counsels those kids on their line of questioning, and what types of questions they would ask in order to represent the case best,”Nyman explained.

Teen Court is a formal process, and the teens are asked to dress in nice, court-appropriate attire.

“It’s a process to be taken seriously. We don’t ever want to lose formality of what Teen Court represents,” Nyman said.

Cheek and Nyman have revamped the program to ensure that sentences are supervised and carried out along every step of the process. They formed a strict monthly tracking system that will be distributed to the schools and referring courts at the beginning of each month.

“If the kids do not complete their sentences and abide by what those conditions were, then their citation is remanded back to whatever court or school referred it to Teen Court,” Nyman said. This new tracking system ensures that sentenced teens are fulfilling their punishment duties. If they do not, the case is transferred back to the original court and sentencing. This means that the infraction then goes on the teens’ permanent records and any original fines are due.

Teen Court is also a positive program for parents with young drivers. With inexperienced drivers come possible traffic infractions. If those infractions are handled through Teen Court, the sentence does not go on the young driver’s record, thereby not affecting insurance costs and saving parents money.

“A lot of times kids don’t have exposure to what a courtroom is like, or what it is to be represented by an attorney, or be prosecuted by someone else. I think this program will expose them to what could potentially happen. It’s different in the case of speeding tickets, but the program is still a good wake up call in those cases,” Nyman said.

The program will also educate kids who have no knowledge of the court system. Nyman hopes that it will spark interest in a teen who may want to go to law school, or who wants to be court staff, or a bailiff.

“It stands to be a very educational opportunity for the teenagers of Harney County,” she said.

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