After a long Tuesday of work, LaShay Johnson, 35, makes her way to the courthouse, where she volunteers as a judge with Alachua County’s Teen Court. She is a community partner with the nonprofit organization, Alachua County Health Promotion & Wellness Coalition, to help provide resources to teens.
For six years, Johnson has presided over cases in Teen Court, a juvenile diversion and alternative sentencing program for non-violent, first-time offenders between the ages of 7 to 17.
“It is going to help somebody. We might not see it right now, but it is definitely going to help these young people,” Johnson said. “I wish more community members actually got involved so that way, we can have more resources for the youth.”
Teen Court, held every Tuesday evening at the Judge Stephan P. Mickle Sr. Courthouse, heard 256 cases and had around 210 volunteers in 2019, Youth Services Manager Olivia Hollier said. Cases continued at a similar rate in 2021, but with only 175 volunteers. To keep up with the caseload, the program is in need of more volunteers.
Teen Court is reserved for youth offenders who have no prior criminal history and accept responsibility for their charges. The program gives the youth a second chance by having a judicial system run by their peers and letting them learn from their mistakes, case manager Gregory Pelham said.
“It gives us an opportunity to get one-on-one with kids who have issues and concerns and be able to try our best to define what their issues are, provide resources to try and alleviate those issues,” he said. “If we can do that through establishing relationships, then we can effect some sort of change in attitude and behavior.”
While the program returned to holding court in person, it is only doing so in master jury cases. In these cases youth offenders defend themselves and the youth-led jury asks them questions, Pelham said.
Master jury cases were usually reserved for older offenders, as traditional court cases included a teen attorney to defend younger offenders. However, the program has yet to return to the traditional court setting due to the volunteer shortage.
The COVID-19 pandemic had a major impact on Teen Court, limiting the number of cases that could be processed, Pelham said.
In 2020, Teen Court was only able to take 157 cases, and the number of volunteers had decreased to about 100 people, Hollier said. But the staff was determined to keep the program going for the teens who needed it.
“The initial adjustment… was rough because we didn’t stop getting referrals,” Hollier said. “We actually peaked in the middle of the stay-at-home order when everybody was out of school.”
Teen Court accepts both youth and adult volunteers. Students from middle and high schools in Alachua County serve as a juror, attorney or clerk. Adult volunteers facilitate the trials as a judge.
Johnson believes the opportunity allows youth to see some of the consequences they might face as an adult if they continue down the same road. But Teen Court is also beneficial for the teens who volunteer because they learn how court proceedings work and practice various laws.
“It teaches us about the laws,” youth volunteer Dominique Carter, 18, said. “There are a bunch of interesting laws I’ve learned about that I would’ve never thought to exist before I came here. You learn a lot that you would’ve never known before.”
Carter believes the impact of volunteering will create empathy and understanding within the community.
“I’ve always been an empathetic person, but I feel like it has given me a lot more of an in-depth perspective and empathy and understanding to the story behind a case,” Carter said. “Because you just hear the police report and think ‘Oh this person did a bad thing,’ but then you hear their story and it’s just a lot of interesting circumstances.”
Teen Court staff goes to middle and high schools to recruit volunteers, especially those in need of community service hours for scholarships, such as Bright Futures, Pelham said.
Hollier said the experience is perfect for volunteers who are open-minded and have an interest in learning about our justice system.
Sanctions at Teen Court include the youth offender issuing a sincere open-court apology to their parent, mandatory community service hours and jury duty nights at Teen Court, along with any other sanction the jury may see fit, such as an essay.
“We are able to say to them ‘Look, what you’ve done is not just affecting you, it’s affecting your family,” Pelham said. “‘It’s also affecting your school, and it’s also affecting your community because a lot of the time, the crimes, especially now, are done in the community and it really has some people scared.’”
Teen Court has positive impacts on the community and allows kids to go into adulthood without any criminal record so they can get a job and give back to our community.
“As a diversion program we are really trying to help our youth’s issues and figure out what’s going on with them,” Hollier said. “That’s making our community better, literally one kid at a time. I do feel like everybody should at least get the chance to take responsibility and to take that away from a youth is just wrong. They’re still growing, they are still making decisions.”