BALTIMORE – Two teenage girls are sitting next to each other, chatting and giggling on a bench inside the Baltimore City District Court house at 1400 E. North Ave. Next to them, their mothers are sitting, patient and silent.
In a few minutes, they’ll all be inside a courtroom, before Teen Court.
Teen Court is a program that diverts some teenagers from the Baltimore juvenile justice system, relieving it of cases and giving the juveniles an opportunity to clear their records.
Inside the courtroom, a jury of teenagers is waiting to render a judgment.
The first girl, 14, was arrested and taken to the Baltimore Juvenile Justice Center on 300 North Gay St., and held for eight hours after she got into a fight.
“When I came to get her, they said that she could go to Teen Court and it wouldn’t stay on her record,” her mother said.
The other, 15, was referred to Teen Court by a police officer at her school two months after she had gotten into a fight.
“If this works for her,” the mother said, “it works for me.”
Not every juvenile brought through the system has the option of attending Teen Court. To qualify, juvenile offenders must be between 11 and 17, charged with a minor crime and have been arrested for no more than four minor crimes in the past.
By participating in Teen Court, juvenile offenders accept their charges and agree to complete their assigned sanctions. Once that happens, their records will be cleared.
Records of juveniles involved in the Department of Juvenile Services and the juvenile court system are sealed. Their names are not public.
There are two major diversion programs in Baltimore, Teen Court and Community Conferencing, Janet Hankin, the deputy state’s attorney of the juvenile division, said.
Community Conferencing is a program that requires both parties — the teenager and the person who was affected by his or her bad behavior — to sit down together to discuss what happened, she said.
“You say, ‘Look … we’ll give you an opportunity to see what it is that you did and how it hurts people, and hopefully you won’t do it anymore,'” she said.
In 2010, about 500 juveniles were sent to diversion programs. That made up more than 8 percent of the 5,735 juvenile arrests in Baltimore last year, Hankin said.
There was an 18 percent increase in the number of juveniles diverted out of the system from 2009 to 2010.
Hankin attributed that to an effort by the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention to make the diversion programs a more formal part of the juvenile justice system, and a grant from the department that allowed the Baltimore Police Department to hire staff to screen cases specifically for diversion programs.
“If there’s a way to know that those kids don’t come back, well, it’s more than worth it,” Hankin said.
Lakiesha Dickens, 19, was offered the option to appear in Teen Court when she was arrested for assault at 13.
Her sanction was 40 hours of community service and five Teen Court jury duties. After the five required jury duties were up, Dickens continued to volunteer.
Dickens said while the program helped her stay out of trouble, she also chose to change her behavior.
“It’s kind of disappointing when kids come back through because you think they’re going to at least try to make progress,” she said. “Maybe they just choose not to go with it.”
Teen volunteers serve as jurors, but once they learn the system, they can act as bailiffs and clerks in the courtrooms. Volunteers read through the charges before the offenders enter the courtroom, ask the offenders questions and then decide on sanctions, with the supervision of a judge.
District Court Judge Jamey Hueston volunteers as a Teen Court judge. She started the Baltimore City Teen Court, now run by the Citizen Law Related Education Program based out of the University of Maryland Baltimore campus, in 1999.
“The offense is really like the tip of the iceberg for the issues these kids have,” she said. “This isn’t just the end of it. We’ve got to get to the root of the problem.”
Leslie Wright, the program coordinator, said Teen Court tries to take a holistic approach to figure out why the juveniles are committing offenses.
“The likelihood that someone in their immediate families has been incarcerated is extremely high in Baltimore City,” she said. “We are hoping that they are going to be able to see that there is another way.”
But she thinks the parents who are involved realize that Teen Court is a favorable option compared with the traditional juvenile justice system.
“Whatever choices these people have made,” she said, “They do see diversion, in my opinion, as a little bit of hope.”