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American society

America's Teenage courts 

Where teenagers are judged by others of the same age group

In the small city of Odessa, western Texas, local judicial authorities have reinterpreted the old legal principle that offenders should be tried by a jury of their peers. Odessa's "Teen Court" is one of over a thousand such courts in the USA, where teens themselves are responsible for trying and sentencing teenage offenders. And the results are very encouraging..
A teen court in TexasThe teen court in Odessa, Texas.
    In the year 1215, the Norman barons of England drew up an ultimatum that they presented to King John and forced him to sign. Among other things, the document, called Magna Carta, the great charter, formally recognized basic human rights, and re-established one of the fundamental principles of English law — that a man should be judged by his peers, or equals. Trial by a jury has been a key feature of English law ever since.
    When Thomas Jefferson and others drew up the American Declaration of Independence in 1776, one of the complaints that they made was that the King of England had deprived Americans of their right to trial by jury. Twelve years later, this right was enshrined in Article III of the new Constitution of the United States, where it has remained ever since.
    But what is a jury of equals? Is a teenager, faced with a jury composed of people his parents' age, being judged by his peers? Most teens would answer "no".

    The idea of "teen courts" has been around in the USA for many years.  It was in the 1980s in Odessa that the Teen Court was first suggested. Realizing that many teenage offenders were alienated by a justice system organized and controlled by people of a different generation, the court in Odessa decided to let offenders opt to be tried by other teenagers.
    Many thousands of teens have since been tried by their peers in Odessa, and almost all agree that it was the right thing to do. Statistics confirm this, as rates of recidivism among teens tried in different Teen Courts are under 5% (compared to up to 50% with normal courts).
    Odessa's Teen Court is one of many now operating in the state of Texas, which in 1990 became the first American state to establish a state-wide organization to develop teen courts.  Until the 1990s, the number of new courts increased slowly; but since the millennium, hundreds more cities all across the USA have seen that the system works, and have introduced it in their own community. In 2007, the idea crossed the Atlantic, with the opening of the first teen court in England, in Preston, Lancashire.

    Teen courts operate in just the same way as a real court, the major difference being that the only professional in the process is the judge. Run by volunteers, the court sits every Tuesday evening under the control of a local judge, also a volunteer; proceedings are conducted as in a real court, with teenagers taking the roles of prosecution and defense: a panel of teens sits as jury, and it is they who propose the sentence they consider to be appropriate.
    While there is no possibility of an Odessa teen jury fining an offender or sending him or her to prison, there is a range of punishments available, including community service, driving classes, counseling and also jury service in the Teen Court. The range of sentences available reflects the type of offenses referred to the court, minor misdeeds such as traffic violations, (including speeding), fighting, vandalism and intoxication. Furthermore, the Court only has the right to judge other teens who have (a) decided to plead guilty, and (b) agreed to be tried by their peers.
    Most other Teen Courts that have been set up operate with similar restrictions, though some, more controversially, have been given powers to determine guilt or innocence in certain cases, and even recommend detention.

    Teens who opt for trial by the Teen Court, thinking that it will be a soft option, are generally surprised. A Los Angeles teen jury recently sentenced 14-year old Michael C. to 600 hours (!) of community service for stealing a car stereo. Judge Jamie Corral, presiding, reduced the sentence to 200 hours, but Michael still had to spend a lot of his free time for six months doing community service as a gardener at Abraham Lincoln High School. "I didn't expect them to be so hard on me, but I deserved it," he said afterwards.
    In 2015, there are well over 1000  teen courts in operation across the United States, and the number is increasing month by month. Teens, judges and community leaders all agree that the system is good, and especially good at stopping young offenders going any further down the road to a life of crime. Evidence shows that young offenders are much more receptive to warnings and reprimands and punishments delivered by their peers, than to those delivered by "the authorities".
    Finally, it is not only teens who are benefitting from the Teen Court. In Odessa, teenage offenders have now contributed over 100,000 hours of community service to the city and to volunteer organizations since the Teen Court was first set up, something that has not gone unnoticed by local residents. "Because of these youth giving the community service hours back to the City of Odessa, they have become an effective part of our community," says Tammy Hawkins, the project's coordinator. "We have found that the kids that are active in the Teen Court Program have less of a desire to drop out of school. They've found a purpose in their lives, and in their own neighborhoods they feel safer because they are becoming an active part of the community."

minor criminal - to try: to judge - peer: person of similar situation deprive of : take away something - enshrined: included - alienated :  marginalized - recidivism: reoffending, committing the same crime again - process: system (this word has no judicial meaning) - prosecution: lawyers who accuse - fine: impose a financial punishment - guilty: opposite of "innocence" -

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This resource is © copyright Linguapress 2015.   Updated from an article originally published in Spectrum magazine in 1995.
This text may not be reproduced on other websites nor in printed form without written permission from the publishers. Reproduction is authorised exclusively for personal use by students, or for use by teachers with their classes.


Student worksheet
America's Teenage Courts

Word search: Find words or expresions in the text which mean
: .
    final warning
    to take something away from someone
    a penalty ordered by a court
    the act of damaging property
    people living nearby
    up to the present time
    a reason for living 

Verbs and verb forms : put the verbs back into the correct form, without consulting the original article
    The idea of "teen courts" has (be) _____  around in the USA for many years.  It was in the 1980s in Odessa that the Teen Court was first (suggest)____________. (Realize) ____________ that many teenage offenders were (alienat) ____________ by a justice system (organize) ____________ and (control) ____________ by people of a different generation, the court in Odessa (decide)____________ to let offenders opt (try) _________________ by other teenagers.
    Odessa's Teen Court is one of many now (operate) ____________in the state of Texas, which in 1990 (become) ____________ the first American state (establish)  _________________ a state-wide organization (develop) ____________  teen courts.  Until the 1990s, the number of new courts (increase) _______________ slowly; but since the millennium, hundreds more cities all across the USA (see) _____________  that the system (work) _______ , and (introduced) _________________  it in their own community. In 2007, the idea (cross) ___________ the Atlantic, with the (open) ___________  of the first teen court in England, in Preston, Lancashire.


Teachers section : Using this article in class

1 Words: This text contains a good selection of the basic vocabulary of the law court. Have students pick out all the legal vocabulary, and explain it where necessary. Note that the word "process" does not have any specific legal meaning. It does not mean "trial".
    Words to find: judicial, legal, offender, offense, try, sentence, rights, principles, law, jury, to judge, justice system, recidivism, court, judge, jury, prosecution, defense, sentence, to fine, to plead guilty, to determine guilt or innocence, detention.

2  Word search answers:
    final warning (ultimatum)
    to take something away from someone (deprive)
    choose (opt)
    six (half a dozen).
    a penalty ordered by a court (sentence)
    the act of damaging property (vandalism)
    established (set up)
    people living nearby (local residents)
    up to the present time (so far)
    a reason for living (a purpose in their lives)
3  Article structure: This article is divided into 4 sections. Have students determine the three breaks. What are the four different sections?
    (Paras 1-3, introduction: paras 4-6 zoom in on Odessa ; paras 7-9, development of the core subject. Para. 10-12 : conclusion (appreciation).)

4 Synopsis: have students reduce each of the above-determined sections to a single sentence of at least 30 words

5 Free expression: have students say, in about 400 words, why they think the Teen Court system is good or bad.

6 Role Play: Conduct sessions of the teen court in class. You will need the following roles.
    An offender ("Johnny" has "borrowed" a car for an evening / Janice (16) was drunk in the town center / Steve drove his motorbike too fast in the town center / Martha was caught picking a big bunch of flowers in a public garden.... or use your imagination!)
    A presiding judge (or two)
    One or two lawyers for the defense
    One or two prosecuting lawyers.
    Two witnesses (one for prosecution, 1 for defense)
    A jury of two or three.
Procedure: Divide class into groups of four, and get each group to imagine details of a supposed offense, and write them down. In due course, each group will present its scenario to the class, and the best one(s) will be selected as role plays.
    Remember, this Teen Court cannot determine guilt and innocence. Its aim is to determine the seriousness of the offense, to see if there are mitigating circumstances, and pass judgement in function.
    Teams of 5 to 8 students should then prepare the role play, after distributing the roles (except the jury, who will be selected from a different group). For maximum authenticity, prosecution (+ witness), defense (+witness)  and judges should prepare their roles separately.
    After allowing sufficient time for preparation, conduct a session of the teen court in class. Allow 15 to 20 minutes per case — longer if it really gets going well!

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This teaching resource is © copyright Linguapress  2015.
Revised 2015 . Originally published in Spectrum, the Advanced level English newsmagazine.
Republication on other websites or in print is not authorised
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