What kind of people come through teen court? Michelle Howard, Vice President of the Teen Court Bar Association in Pima, contends that sometimes it’s kids who just slipped up once:
“Through teen court, essentially what you’re doing is saving kids from throwing away their lives. It’s ridiculous that 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. And so 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.’”
“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.”
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 that 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.