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Updated: 02/19/2015 06:32:15PM

Teen Court: search for a better way

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There is a certain visceral satisfaction that comes from the penal approach of yesteryear: “Lock ‘em up and throw away the key.”

Those of us who obey most of the laws most of the time (you have jaywalked a time or two in your life, right?) may find it easy to subscribe to the “tough on crime” approach, and there is merit to toughness.

When it works.

But we need look no further than the disgraceful mistreatment of boys sent to the Florida School for Boys at Marianna from 1900 to 2011 to be reminded of another popular phrase: “Let the punishment fit the crime.” Clearly punishment was excessive at Marianna.

Incarceration serves one, hopefully two, purposes.

It unquestionably keeps offenders off the streets for the term of their sentences.

It may serve as a deterrent, though if this were invariably true, it seems we would need fewer, not more, prison cells as the years go by.

Most criminologists hold to the belief that when you send an offender to prison for the first time, you get a more savvy criminal upon his release.

This is not a bleeding heart appeal to pile second chances on top of second chances for incorrigible offenders. And there are some offenses for which “one strike and you’re out” is justified.

But there is room at the other end of the scale — young first term offenders whose offenses are easily blown out of proportion by a zero tolerance, one size fits all approach to misbehavior, or who make a stupid error in judgment without considering the consequences.

One approach in Polk County to dealing with such offenders is Polk County Teen Court, which is held every Monday evening at the courthouse.

Teens themselves act as prosecutors, defenders, and members of the jury. The procedure is overseen by a judge or a magistrate.

Only youngsters who have admitted to their offenses appear in Teen Court; the purpose is to consider the severity of their offense and the appropriate disciplinary penalty.

“It keeps kids out of the criminal court system,” Teen Court Director Clever English told the Bartow Rotary Club a few weeks ago. Although circumstances vary based on how a case is processed by law enforcement, when the initial referral is directly to Teen Court, there is no criminal record created.

Offenses which a generation ago would have been classified as mischief, if that, can result in criminal prosecution today, Ms. English said, citing throwing oranges as an offense that can result in criminal sanctions. A kid who gets mad and throws a TV remote at a sibling can face arrest for domestic violence battery.

“If a kid got a new pocketknife and wanted to take it to school to show his friends his shiny new knife, he could automatically get arrested for carrying a weapon in school,” she said.

Picking up a friend at a school different from the one which the student attends can result in a charge of trespassing.

The Teen Court jury can assign an array of sanctions, ranging from classes in such areas as consequences of crime, anger management, and the dangers of impaired driving, to drug testing, a jail tour, a curfew, writing an apology or an essay, appearing before a MADD victim impact panel, and community service.

Sentences given by teens to their peers typically are more stringent than what they would receive in conventional court, Ms. English said.

There are no simple — and certainly no certain — solutions for juvenile crime, but Teen Court strikes us as a sensible approach that meets the ends of both justice and mercy, hopefully solving problems without creating new ones.

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