The first time Sasha* walked through the metal detectors at the Southwest Municipal Court, she did not realize she was entering an alternate universe of sorts, a subsection of the judicial system populated almost entirely by teenagers. Sasha, 17, pled guilty to fighting at school – it didn’t matter that she didn’t start it – and the judge sent her here, to “Teen Court.” She expected it to be a court session designated for teens in trouble with the law, and she was right about that part.
What she didn’t expect to see was teens serving as prosecutors, defense attorneys, bailiffs, and even judges.
Sasha says she was completely caught off guard by the teenagers running the show at her sentencing hearing. “I seen some kid younger than me defending me, and then I seen some kid younger than me prosecuting me, I was like, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ And I was like, ‘Well, this is Teen Court, and I’m guessing this is really, really Teen Court. I started laughing.”
Tonight, Sasha drops her purse and phone into the gray plastic bin on the conveyor belt. A wide white headband holds back her long wavy black hair. A fitted, white button-up shirt sets off her flawless brown skin. She looks more like a bright-eyed young starlet on the Disney channel than a juvenile delinquent who allegedly pummels other girls in the hallway at school.
She keeps on her purple sneakers as she walks through the metal detector. This is just a municipal courthouse in the suburbs of Fort Worth, after all, not a high-security federal courthouse. Or a prison. That’s the idea: Start them out here in Teen Court, in a civil and respectful environment, and maybe they won’t end up there.
Sasha doesn’t even glance up at the incongruous mirrored ceiling and Reagan-era globe lights hanging above her as she climbs the winding staircase. She’s a Monday-night regular. She actually likes coming here now. She might even come back as a volunteer once she’s done her time.
At the top of the stairs, Sasha bends over to sign in at the desk, then she tucks her phone in her purse and walks confidently down a hallway out of sight. In the makeshift waiting area, teenagers slouch in poses of feigned nonchalance, stealing sideways glances at Sasha, searching for clues about what is to come for them. Who is she? Is she in trouble, too? What’s down that hallway? Am I going down there later? And who are these kids coming out wearing suits and ties, and dresses and high heels, walking around with files like they’re…
“Dominic Morales?” A 13-year-old boy with spiky blond hair raises his eyebrows at the group of waiting teenagers, all of whom are older and taller than him. He wears light grey slacks, a charcoal shirt and red tie, and stands casually holding a legal file at his hip. A look of confusion passes over Dominic’s face but he stands and makes his way toward the boy.
“Hi,” the 13-year-old says, thrusting his hand out, leaving Dominic no choice but to shake it. “I’m Blake Smith. I’ll be representing you tonight. Right this way.” Blake strides off toward a glassed-in conference room and Dominic stands rooted in place. His eyebrows furrow and he looks back over his shoulder for any indication that this might be a joke, then shrugs and follows Blake to the conference room. Like Sasha, he had not really known what to expect at Teen Court.
Dominic and the other teenage defendants in the waiting area are here because they pled guilty or no contest to Class C misdemeanors in Fort Worth. Instead of paying fines and carrying criminal records, they opted for Teen Court and a shot at a fresh start. Most of these kids shoplifted something worth less than $50 (usually from Walmart), or drove without a license, or got caught with beer (often right after they shoplifted it from Walmart). On any given night at Teen Court, there might also be teenagers holding citations for traffic violations, domestic violence, or fighting in public. There is one girl here tonight who does not want you to know what she was caught doing in the car with her boyfriend that earned her a seat in this waiting room.
Class C misdemeanors are issued as tickets, so they are handled by Fort Worth’s municipal court system. More serious offenses are prosecuted for the state by the District Attorney’s Office. In 1989 the Texas Legislature decided that the best way to steer first-offender teenagers away from the judicial system was to keep them out of it in the first place. Texas Article 45.052 gives judges the authority to “defer proceedings” to a youth court if an offender is under the age of 18 or is still in high school, and if they have not participated in a youth court in the previous two years. In a youth court setting, a jury of their peers sentences them to “pay” their fines with community service hours – a minimum of 48 hours and a maximum of 64 per charge.
The teen defendants and their parents come from all walks of life. One young man with a traffic citation pulled up to the courthouse in a Corvette. Another has to leave quickly after his hearing so his mother can make it to her evening job. Some barely pass the dress code standards for their court appearance. A young man in sagging designer jeans appears at the top of the stairs and walks with a Pharrell-Williams-esque limp toward the sign-in table. But before he reaches the table, a middle-aged woman barreling through the waiting area intercepts him.
“Are you here for jury duty?” she asks the young man, cocking her head to the side and slowing her pace. He mumbles something in response, to which she replies, “Not in those jeans you’re not. Jesse, can you deal with this?” Susan Wolf, Teen Court coordinator, tosses the request over her shoulder to her adult colleague Jesse Medina, pointing down at the young man’s jeans as she continues her march onward. Medina peers over his black-rimmed glasses at the expensively-placed rips and holes in the boy’s jeans.
“No torn jeans,” Medina says, shaking his head, respectful but firm. “Can you get a change of clothes? Can somebody bring you something? If not, you’ll have to come back another night. Torn jeans are not allowed for jury duty. See what you can do.” The young man gestures down at his jeans as if to protest their obvious superiority over non-torn jeans, but Medina has moved on. There are only three adults working at Teen Court tonight, and they are in perpetual motion. The rejected juror rolls his eyes and pulls out his phone, dragging his feet as he returns to the winding staircase.
The one mandatory ingredient in any Teen Court sentence is jury duty, and teens must be dressed appropriately for their civil service. Every defendant will serve on two Teen Court juries in addition to whatever community service hours they receive for their sentence. This is the first step in their responsibility training – respecting the system, and seeing crime from the perspective of the justice system.
Far from drawing a line between the “good” kids and “bad” kids – attorneys on one side, defendants on the other – the system is designed to make everyone involved more understanding of each other, and of their responsibility as citizens, by giving them hands-on experience with the judicial system. Every volunteer attorney will gain experience prosecuting and defending, representing the government in one trial, and fighting for a defendant in the next. Defendants go from the ones being sentenced, to sitting on a jury and sentencing someone else. The door is always open for defendants to cross over and become attorneys when they finish serving their time, if they are interested.
There are approximately 75 Teen Courts operating in Texas today. Without a system like this, parents are the ones who get punished because they have to pay the fines for their children, says Kristie Dempsey, board president of the Teen Courts Association of Texas. This can be a real hardship for poor families, and the teens don’t learn a lesson in the process, which means they are likely to show back up in the criminal justice system later, usually for a more serious offense. Studies show lower recidivism rates for teens who participate in a Teen Court program, and that ultimately benefits the community. “Once they go through our program, the recidivism rates drop. We try to make it just painful enough so that they want to stay out of the adult court system all together,” Dempsey says.
The volunteer teen attorneys come from public schools, private schools and homeschools. Some students earn extra credit for school, and some use it as off-season training for their school debate and mock trial teams. Blake, Dominic’s lawyer, is plotting his future career. He is only in seventh grade, but he knows he wants to go to law school one day. He is confident and well-spoken in front of a jury, a Doogie Howser of sorts, if this generation even knew who the TV-prodigy-doctor was.
Some teen attorneys are young and new to their roles, stumbling over questions as they cross examine a defendant on the stand. Others are more seasoned and address the jury confidently, without notes. They use the large paper pads that stand on easels facing the jury to scrawl out the recommended number of community service hours in large numbers to imprint it on the jurors’ minds. The prosecution almost always writes the maximum “64,” and the defense almost always crosses it out dramatically. “See this number? Well forget it!” Then they replace it with their own, the minimum “48.”
The best teen attorneys deliver smooth, three-point opening statements that grab and focus the jury’s attention. They make objections on complicated legal issues such as hearsay and relevance. They occasionally write alliterated bullet points as visual aids: “Mistake, Misunderstanding, Misallocation of Justice.” They memorize a few weighty historical quotes to throw into almost any case. Abraham Lincoln is a favorite for the defense: “I have always found that mercy bears richer fruits than strict justice.” Or the original line 14-year-old attorney Karika likes to use: “You have to make a mistake to learn from a mistake.”
Sasha expected an adult jury when she first came to Teen Court for her own trial, but she was relieved to see teens in the jury box. She thinks the teens may have gone easier on her than an adult jury. High school students would be more likely to understand her situation, which reads like a Disney-channel sitcom up until the fight part. She was the new girl at school. Her brand new best friend, Christina, used to be best friends with Viv, and Viv didn’t like it when Sasha showed up and stole her BFF. So Viv jumped Sasha in the hallway between classes and they – and everybody else who jumped in – fought until the campus police officer broke them up. The fact that she didn’t start the fight seemed to resonate with the teen jury, and that’s probably why they gave her the minimum of 48 community service hours, Sasha says.
When Sasha returned as a jury member following her own sentencing hearing, things looked different. She wasn’t the one nervously answering the attorney’s questions. She was seeing it from the other side, weighing crimes she had not personally committed. She had to decide, unanimously with five other jurors, what the sentence should be. In one hearing, the defendant was charged with a traffic violation when she backed out of a driveway without looking, which caused an accident.
“She didn’t show no remorse at all, so we gave her the max,” Sasha said. Sasha says she takes it seriously and listens to the stories, really trying to decide how much time people should get.
Ultimately she believes all the punishments are good because they teach lessons, and they do it in a fun environment.
Some teen jurors are less invested in the process than others. They spend more time flirting and talking about the sentence they got than considering the case at hand. And just like in adult trials, sometimes it looks like the bailiff is asleep in the corner.
Fort Worth’s Teen Court program has a completion rate of about 80 percent, according to Chief Municipal Judge Ninfa Mares. Without this program and the accountability it gives to teen offenders, she could see the juvenile crime rate rising in Fort Worth.
“Payment of a fine alone does not promote a change in behavior,” Judge Mares says. “However, appearing before a jury of your peers, participating as a juror, completing community service hours and answering for your behavior is much more likely to change a teen’s behavior, and in the long run it promotes good citizenship.”
Sasha is a case in point. “I feel like even though I did do something that wasn’t right, which was fighting, I still feel like I’m going to get something good out of this because I’m learning responsibility here while teaching other people about responsibility,” she says. “And I’m getting something good on my resume at the same time while doing it.”
Fewer adults entering the criminal justice system means money is saved on many levels, and that is motivation enough for some cities, like Fort Worth, to operate the Teen Court program with city funds. Fort Worth covers 90 percent of the budget costs, leaving only 10 percent to be raised through donations from charitable organizations like the Sid W. Richardson Foundation. In other cities like Texarkana, the Teen Court program operates as a non-profit, with a director who spends much of his or her time fundraising to keep the program running.
Susan Wolf returns to the waiting area and introduces herself as the Teen Court coordinator to the gathering of defendants and a few parents, then she launches into a speech she has given thousands of times in her 17 years as coordinator. She is comfortable in her tan linen jacket, tan skirt and tan, sensible shoes. Her strawberry blonde hair is pulled into a functional ponytail. She is explaining all the different ways defendants can earn community service hours with nonprofits, government agencies or schools. Goodwill, the Tarrant Area Food Bank, and Boys and Girls Clubs are popular choices. Schools can offer opportunities on campus, which is especially helpful to students with transportation issues. After their mandatory two jury terms, teens can earn four hours any time they want to come back and serve on more juries.
In addition to working for nonprofits, defendants can effectively buy their way out of a maximum of 14 hours by donating a 10-pound bag of dog food to the animal shelter, and either donating toys to the Cowboy Santa toy drive, or donating blankets to the Senior Citizens Center. If they complete their hours within 90 days of their sentencing, their charges are dismissed. If they don’t, they have to appear in front of a “real” judge who can decide if they should receive an extension. As Wolf talks, a teen attorney walks past and hugs her from behind. Barely turning her head, she pats his hand on her shoulder and smiles without missing a beat. When she finishes her speech, she is instantly back in motion, docket in hand, to orchestrate this dance of teen defendants pairing up with teen defense attorneys to tango with teen prosecutors in front of teen jurors.
In almost two decades as the Teen Court coordinator, Wolf has learned to flex with the Legislature’s ever-changing philosophies on the best ways to prosecute and rehabilitate juvenile offenders. In 2004 Fort Worth had the busiest Teen Court docket in the state, processing 2,600 cases a year. Now, with the Legislature requiring schools to handle more on-campus infractions internally, instead of making them criminal offenses, Fort Worth’s Teen Court processes about 700 cases a year, she says.
Wolf moves down the hall and pokes her head into the jury room to call the first jury of the evening. Ke-Ron White sits on the edge of a desk at the front of the room, arms crossed over his dress shirt and tie. He laughs easily with the 2015 version of the Breakfast Club gathered before him. It is clear they adore him. Ke-Ron, 22, started out as a teen attorney when he was in high school, and now he works for Teen Court part time while he attends college. An African-American teen in a Hustle Gang T-shirt drapes his long frame across three chairs while he shoots questions at Ke-Ron. The teen is running behind on his deadline to serve 122 hours for several counts, including theft from a Walmart store, and tonight he is working off four hours by serving extra jury time. In the back corner, a Hispanic teen, who looks like he is 25 years old, sleeps with his head against the wall. A smaller boy in jeans, T-shirt and cowboy boots slouches in his chair and glances sideways occasionally to follow the action, but otherwise stays motionless.
Sasha sits up straight in her chair toward the back of the room, laughing at the banter, clearly enjoying herself. She has decided she wants to become a volunteer with Teen Court when she finishes serving her sentence for the fight at school. Seeing those young people using their free time in this way has given her a different vision for her own life.
“I would normally see adults doing things like this, but to see kids my own age doing things like this, it was really inspiring,” she says. “It took a toll on me in a good way. It makes me want to do something positive like this in my life.”
The pool of jurors stands and files out of the room. Three of them peel off into an office that doubles as a “tribunal council” room. Fort Worth’s Teen Court added tribunals as a quicker, more efficient way to move lesser crimes through the system. Three jury members and a “tribunal chief” sit around a table with the defendant and his or her parent and they ask the defendant questions about the crime. Then the defendant and parent step out of the room while the jurors decide the sentence, and return for the reading of the sentence. The entire process takes about 10 minutes.
The rest of the jurors in the pool move on toward a large room on the other side of the staircase that functions as a courtroom. They will serve on six-member jury trials – shortened versions of traditional trials, with opening and closing statements, examination and cross-examination of the defendant, and a judge reading instructions to the jury before deliberations.
If the docket for the night has a sensitive case on it, involving domestic violence, or maybe the girl caught in a compromising position in the parked car, Wolf will schedule it as a “plea in bar.” It is still teen prosecutors and defense attorneys handling the plea negotiations, but there is less exposure for the defendant to protect their privacy.
On nights when there is a heavy docket and plenty of volunteer teen attorneys, they will also use one of the more formal municipal courtrooms downstairs. Sasha’s sentencing hearing took place downstairs, with Karika as her defense attorney. Tonight, serving as the jury foreman, Sasha is fully engaged on the front row, watching the teen attorneys closely. When she stands to announce the jury’s sentence – 60 hours for stealing food from Walmart, when the defendant had money in his pocket to pay for it – she is confident and looks the judge in the eye.
Sasha has heard there is a special competition team that volunteers can be on, competing against other Teen Court teams from around the state. They argue a fictitious Teen Court case in front of real adult attorneys and judges. Fort Worth’s team has won first place in the Texas Teen Court competition two years in a row. When Sasha is done serving her time and her criminal record is clear again, she wants to train to be a Teen Court volunteer attorney, and maybe even a member of the competition team.
Like her defense attorney Karika likes to say, “You have to make a mistake to learn from a mistake.” Sasha agrees. “I like coming here because it makes me feel good,” Sasha says. “Like a negative is turning into a positive.”
At the end of the night, Sasha joins the flow of teenagers winding their way back down the staircase. They laugh and talk and turn their cell phones back on. The line that exists in the courtroom between the attorneys and the defendants blurs until they are all just teenagers again, pushing through the glass doors at the bottom of the stairs and back into their normal lives.
*The names of all teenage defendants and volunteer attorneys have been changed to protect their privacy and to honor the confidentiality requirements of the Teen Court system.