“Oh my God, this is the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”
“I’m like peeing my pants. I’m sweating. I’m nervous.”
“I don’t know any of the kids in this room, and they’re all staring at me and judging me, and listening to me delve into some very personal things. Some things I’d rather not disclose.”
Sometimes 17-year-old Michelle Howard imagines the way others her age may feel as they appear on the witness stand. Teenagers typically hate being judged by their peers, but in a small courtroom in Tucson, Arizona, it’s a welcome alternative.
In the Pima County Teen Court, where Howard volunteers, minors charged with misdemeanors can face their peers instead of a standard jury. It is an alternative justice system, which diverts teenagers out of the juvenile justice system, and instead allows them to leave with clean records and a second chance.
However, outside the walls of this courthouse, bigger judgments are being made: judgments on whether or not the funding for teen court will continue. The courts have a proven record of success, but since the recession, the funding has gone down, while the number of soliciting organizations has gone up, making it difficult to balance the scales.
The Court’s Record
Also called youth courts or peer courts, teen courts exist across the United States. The Pima County Teen Court began in 1995, underneath the organization of the Pima Prevention Partnership.
These courts provide an alternative to the juvenile justice system. The trial is legal, and teenagers play the parts of jurors and attorneys, as their peers stand on trial.
Kate Spaulding, volunteer coordinator for the Pima County Teen Court, knows that lowering the ages does not lower the stakes.
“Teen court is not a mock trial. They’re not pretending to do a real job. It is real,” said Spaulding. “They’re dealing with people who have made poor choices. they’re delivering consequences that need to be fulfilled. Everything about it is real.”
The real trial starts with a real crime.
When a Pima County resident between the ages of 12 and 17 is arrested for a first, second or third offense misdemeanor, their probation officer can refer them to teen court. The defendant must plead guilty to the offense.
Common offenses include possession of alcohol or drugs, shoplifting, assault or trespassing.
The Pima County Teen Court has served 7,149 defendants since it’s opening.
Meena Venkataramanan has seen a small portion of those. The high school junior began volunteering in May of 2014, and serves as Secretary of the Pima County Teen Court Bar Association. She feels the impact of teen court starts right with the arrest.
“When you’re a teenager and you’re arrested, it’s a really harrowing thing,” said Venkataramanan. “I think all of them are grateful that they get a chance to come to teen court instead of going to juvenile court or possibly facing real legal consequences for their actions.”
According to the Pima County Teen Court website, its core mission is to assign “constructive consequences that are designed to help the defendant understand why their behavior was wrong, repair the harm they caused, and make better choices in the future.”
Those constructive consequences manifest in a number of different ways.
First, all teenagers who stand as defendants must return to serve on the jury. Volunteers can serve on the jury as well, but in any given case, a number of former defendants will be helping to decide the next sentence, allowing the program to continue.
That sentence may also include workshops related to the offense. If a defendant was arrested for assault, domestic violence or disorderly conduct, they will be required to attend a “Keep Your Cool” workshop, where they learn anger management.
The workshops are aimed to prevent recidivism, which occurs when someone continues to cycle in and out of the court system for repeated offenses.
“Through teen court essentially what you’re doing is saving kids from throwing away their lives,” said Howard.
“It’s ridiculous for an eighth grader – an eighth grade girl who tried marijuana in a bathroom stall because her friend told her it was cool – to have to face the expensive punishment of juvie, when in reality, this girl isn’t bad. This girl isn’t evil or anything. She just had a moment of peer pressure,” she continued.
The high school senior and vice president of the Pima County Teen Court Bar Association just wants “to be able to take a girl like that, a guy like that or any other case and be able to sit them down, and tell them, ‘Look, this is wrong. Here’s what you need to do the next time around.’”
The forward-thinking practice has yielded results. Recidivism rates in Pima County Teen Courts are between 18-28%, while the Pima County Juvenile Court’s rate is up between 40-65%.
With recidivism rates down, fewer teenagers return to the witness stand. Other numbers are down in teen court too though.
Teen courts survive off a rotating patchwork of grants. Claire Scheuren, executive director of the Pima Prevention Partnership, says the program typically operates on money from about 11 different funders at any given time.
“On one level, that makes it a very strong program because it has a lot of buy-in from a lot of different entities,” said Scheuren. “But it also makes it difficult because every year, every single year for 20 years, we’ve had to raise our budget.”
Adelita Grijalva, director of the Pima County Teen Court has watched the number of grants available and the amount they’re worth dwindle down every year.
“It’s not huge drops in money, it’s sort of continual,” said Grijalva. “It’s a slow leak.”
Eventually, some of those leaks dry up.
Many teen courts in Pima County used to be directly linked to schools due in part to specific grants from both the government and private donors.
“What they were looking for was to take the teen court model into the schools and that funding in that specific way is no longer available,” said Spaulding.
With teen courts disappearing from schools, defendants are all bottlenecked to county courts.
“We have less opportunities for young people throughout Pima County and the outlying areas to participate,” said Grijalva.
Funding cuts and seesawing grants have also led to a reduction in staff.
“Our budget has fluctuated from our low point of $160,000… to our high of $310,000,” said Grijalva.
“At the high, we had five staff members here, and at the low we have where we are now, it’s like 1.8 staff members, still trying to run the program at a capacity that is helpful.”
Conflict of Interests
Though money and staffing remains low, the Pima County Teen Court still strives to make an impact on the community. The number of teens served and the recidivism rate are positive indicators, but potential funders and participants have more to judge.
No one is arguing against teen courts, other nonprofits are hoping to take priority when it comes to funding.
“Right now you see a lot of programs that are gearing toward helping young people and adults once they’ve been released from incarceration. That’s not teen court. We’re trying to prevent that stuff,” said Grijalva.
When Grijalva goes to look for funding, she says they absolutely are competing with other nonprofits and agencies.
Back in April, Pima County Teen Court was one of 13 organizations to receive a grant from the Arizona Criminal Justice Commission.
Of the more than $600,000 awarded, just $36,118 went to Pima Prevention Partnership, to then trickle down to Pima County Teen Court. Andy LeFevre, the public information officer, noted that the commission allocated their money based off which agencies best aligned with their goals.
“Of primary concern was the degree of the substance abuse problem in counties that applied for funding,” said LeFevre. “Also, ACJC placed a priority on funding projects serving youth with substance abuse problems.”
Teen courts also have to battle for prominence in schools, where a wider variety of classes dilutes the potential participant pool.
“Middle schools and high schools have a lot more flexibility when it came to electives,” said Grijalva. “With every new initiative and requirement that the state puts down… that limits the number of extracurricular classes that students can take.”
Awaiting a Sentence
Costs have fluctuated through the past 20 years, the Pima County Teen Court has adapted to serve the needs of its defendants.
Within their Tucson-based office, Grijalva researches and writes away.
“There’s a lot of those things that happen through the year, and it’s ongoing. There’s not a grant season anymore, we’re just always writing grants. It’s what we do,” she said.
For now, she and her coworkers will continue to search for grants. Though the funding may fluctuate, the value of teen court is still clear to its volunteers.
“You can spend hours talking to kids and understanding different lifestyles and hearing stories about people from all over your city,” said Howard. “I just always found that a lot more impactful and a lot more engaging than I have other volunteer work.”