Often when diversionary programs are developed for juvenile defendants, they have laudable goals for providing a “second chance” for the accused and an opportunity to turn a challenging situation into a valuable learning experience for the defendant.
Rarely do these programs accomplish those goals and simultaneously provide a one of a kind skill-building platform for the volunteers who support the program. New Hanover and Brunswick County Teen Court is one such program.
Here’s how it works: full time high school (or middle school) students who are accused of low level misdemeanors and have no prior criminal history can apply to have their case accepted into Teen Court. If the case is accepted into Teen Court, it is removed from the County’s Court docket and scheduled for hearing in Teen Court. The juvenile defendant agrees to accept responsibility (i.e. plead guilty) to the charge(s) in exchange for constructive sentences and an expungement of the charge.
The Teen Court hearing effectively serves as a sentencing hearing. Both the State and the defendant are represented by student volunteer attorneys, who present their cases to a jury of high school students and in front of a court supported by student clerks and bailiffs. A licensed attorney presides as the judge over the hearing.
Sanctions available to the Teen Court jury include mandatory Teen Court jury service and adherence to school and household rules, as well as community service, letters of apology, restitution (where applicable), research papers, and educational classes among other options.
During the case presentations, student attorneys make opening arguments, present evidence and question any witnesses. As student attorneys are trained and gain “on the job experience” they develop skills supporting effective and persuasive public speaking, critical thinking in real time, and empathy for students who are often experiencing a very difficult time.
Teen Court is emblematic of the best of diversionary programs – the student defendants get a true second chance and the student volunteers build skills that will serve them no matter what educational or professional path they choose in the future.
Atlantic Coast law is proud to support New Hanover County Teen Court. Mark Ihnat, a partner in our Wilmington office, volunteers as a judge and assists in student attorney training – Mr. Ihnat, when asked about his experience with Teen Court added the following: “I have the unique experience of having been a charter member of New Hanover County Teen Court – in 1999, as a student at New Hanover High School, I began volunteering as a student attorney. Now 20 years later, I have the privilege to bring both my legal experience and my history as a student volunteer to the table to help serve both the program and the students. It’s been incredible to see court rooms filled with hundreds of student volunteers and a full docket of cases.”