Three juvenile defenders stand alone in a hushed court room as the judge administers the oath. In attendance are 12 teen jurors, one Charles County deputy, three “Blue Shirts” and some very nervous parents.
The oath is administered, “I do solemnly swear …”
The room is seated, and the presiding judge explains court proceedings. Two of the respondent teens are led out of the room and a different oath is administered to the jury and the remaining respondent. The trial begins.
This is a “grand jury” style trial where jurors ask respondents question. Their questions are frank, direct, and on point. Some are very cutting. These teen jurors ask and the respondent answers the relentless barrage until the jury is satisfied they have a complete picture of the crime.
The judge then instructs the jury and they are led out to the jury room to deliberate. While this happens the respondent sits and awaits their fate – nerve-wracked. Accompanying parents fidget. There is tension in the sparse courtroom until the jury returns.
The judge addresses the jury, and the appointed foreman hands the decision form to the judge who reads the verdit.
This is Teen Court. It is real, it is final, it is binding upon the respondent. And, most importantly, it is the respondent’s one and only chance to exonerate his or her record of the crime for all time.
Teens committing crimes get only one shot at Teen Court. If they repeat the crime, commit another crime, they are sent directly to the Department of Juvenile Services for disposition of their case and their permanent record is recorded by authorities, forever staining the future.
Charles County’s eight-year-old Teen Court system has become recognized nationally and is used as a model for other jurisdiction to create a similar diversionary court designed to keep teens out of the juvenile justice courts and to give them an opportunity to leave with a completely clean record.
According to Teen Court Sarah Vaughan, Teen Court coordinator, “The program is hugely successful. We only take cases for first offenders and don’t handle the more serious offenses like drugs, domestic violence or extraordinary thefts.”
The county’s program also is the only one in Maryland that handles traffic cases. “Sgt. Carl Rye, the Charles County Sheriff Teen Court administrator stated, “We do not accept motor vehicle accidents, and all traffic cases are referred to us by trial judges.” He indicated that for the criminal cases that he and Vaughan review every case before it is assigned to the Department of Juvenile Services. “Once we sign off on the case, the records are kept in the Teen Court system until the case is resolved,” said Rye.
Teen Court community judges, Beverly Deniston and Gregory W. Jones Sr. have repeatedly said the system is great. Deniston said “It is a fabulous program for children. It is not so much punitive as preventative.
“The system gives a chance for peers to mete out a dissolution to a case to one of their own. Kids listen to other kids better than adults, and we have one of the lowest recidivism rates on the country,” said Jones.
The Charles County Teen Court boasts only a 4 percent rate of return criminals as opposed to the national average of 12 percent. Trials every other Thursday in the Charles County Courthouse, 200 Charles St., La Plata, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.n Charles County’s Teen Court has been presented to Congress and is being copied by other teens across the nation.