If a youth in Wayne County commits a crime, he or she has a chance to learn from his mistake instead of having a criminal record follow him throughout life through Teen Court.
Teen Court receives funding from United Way that makes it possible to serve youths ages 16 through 18, said BreAnna VanHook, teen court and community service director.
The program operates through Communities Supporting Schools.
“Had we not received that funding, we’d only be able to serve kids up to 16 years old through the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council,” she said.
“But we saw a tremendous need to serve the 16- to 18-year-old population, too. And we can also serve kids who may be 19 or 20 if the incident they were charged with occurred when they were 18.”
Those going through Teen Court have to be in school.
They are referred to Teen Court from District Court, VanHook said.
“We treat it just like it was a charge,” she said, “except instead of them having to go through the court process, they come through our program with a parent. They go before a jury of their peers and have teen attorneys. The case is heard, and the teen attorney gives them a sentence, which has to be completed in 90 days.”
Depending on the offense, that sentence could include community service; serving a certain number of hours of jury duty at Teen Court; attending the Think Smart program, where an inmate from a correctional facility or a law enforcement officer talks about prison life; and writing a letter of apology if the charge was theft.
“They are required to stay in school and finish high school while completing the Teen Court program,” VanHook said.
“Teen Court gives them the opportunity to have a fresh start. That has been a tremendous need because they are graduating from high school, going to college and joining the military, and without us being able to serve that population, a lot of them would wind up with a record that would show up when applying to the military or for college scholarships.”
If a Teen Court participant gets another charge while in the program, he or she automatically goes to District Court.
Teen Court has been operating in Wayne County for more than 15 years, VanHook said.
She said it has a success rate of 90 to 95 percent yearly with the 120 youths it serves each year.
“I can’t stress enough what this program has done for this community,” she said.
“If United Way stops its funding, it would be difficult for us to operate the program at the level we do now.
“The program gives kids the opportunity to learn from their mistakes so they don’t end up with a court or criminal record.”