NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – There’s a real judge in a real courtroom where a North Little Rock teenager is on trial for skipping school.
Inside the courtroom at the North Little Rock Justice Center, high school students serve as the attorney representing the school and the defense representing the student on trial.
North Little Rock Teen Court is a juvenile diversion program aimed at keeping teenagers out of the criminal justice system.
District Court Judge Paula Jones brought Teen Court to North Little Rock 15 years ago.
“(It) gives them a chance to admit guilt, then be represented by their peers, then punished by their peers,” Jones said. “It’s positive peer pressure.”
The trial is proceeding like the real deal. Each party makes opening statements and then calls witnesses. In this lawsuit, the prosecution begins by calling a school resource officer to testify.
“He tended to be very late or miss classes in general quite regularly,” the officer said of the defendant during his testimony.
The teenager even speaks up in his own defense before both sides give their closing arguments.
His student lawyers petition the teenage jury for him to receive eight hours of community service and serve on two teenage juries. The prosecution students plead for 12 hours of community service and a jury warrant.
“We need options for children. We want to keep children out of juvenile court,” Jones explained. “We want them to understand, ‘You know what, that was really stupid.’ We want them to understand this before entering the juvenile justice system.
Teen Court has proven itself nationwide. According to a report by the Urban Institute, only 6% to 9% of teens who go through a youth justice program will get into trouble again, compared to 42% of non-teen offenders.
Back in the courtroom, the jury deliberates behind closed doors. After a few minutes, the volunteer bailiff reveals the teenager’s pain.
The jury decides that he should receive 15 hours of community service, serve on a youth court jury, and cannot have unjustified lateness or absences for the rest of the year.
Kids can go to Teen Court for all kinds of misdemeanor charges, like truancy or vaping on campus. Currently, there are eight youth court programs in Arkansas.
The Pulaski County Special School District is in the second year of its program, and Jones has helped other districts implement their own Teen Court programs.
For more details on the program, visit NLRTeenCourt.com.