AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Teenagers who commit crimes are subject to all kinds of disadvantages down the road. Their criminal behavior ends up on their permanent record, and so when they apply for jobs, for example, they'll have to admit they broke the law. But what have if there were a way for these teens to admit their guilt and maintain a clean record at the same time? Michigan Radio's Jennifer Guerra has the details.
JENNIFER GUERRA, BYLINE: This is a story about second chances. Let's meet the defendant. How are you feeling?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm kind of nervous, but I think I'm kind of getting over it a little bit.
GUERRA: What are you most nervous about?
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know. Standing in front of a whole bunch of people, talking about what I did.
GUERRA: The defendant is a 10th-grader at a Detroit area high school. Back in March, she was with a friend at JCPenney. Her friend stole a bunch of stuff while they were there. The defendant stole a $30 bracelet. They both got caught before they could run out of the store. Now, because shoplifting is a misdemeanor and because this is the defendant's first ever run-in with the law, she decided to take her case to teen court.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: All rise, for the teen court of Wayne County is now back in session.
GUERRA: Since the defendant is a juvenile offender, we are not allowed to use her name. This particular teen court is affiliated with the Detroit Public School District, but there are more than 1,500 teen or youth courts across the country. The first ones date back to the 1970s. Local police agents are usually the ones who decide which cases qualify for teen court. Now there are several different types of these division programs. This one in Detroit is just one example, but generally speaking, there are three rules to teen court. One - the crime has to be relatively minor. We're talking shoplifting or vandalism - not murder. Two - the defendant has to admit she broke the law, upfront. And three - it's up to a group of students - a literal jury of her peers to come up with an appropriate sentence.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I mean hopefully they teach me something. And hopefully I - they learn from my mistakes. And I hope I leave there feeling relieved that I finally got to talk about it.
DANTON WILSON: I'm not a real judge, but you can almost say I play a judge in the teen court model that we use.
GUERRA: That's Danton Wilson. He's a prosecuting attorney for Wayne County, which includes Detroit. He's got on his son's black graduation robe, to make himself look more judge-like.
WILSON: Do you solemnly swear or affirm under penalties of perjury that the testimony you are about to give in this case is the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
GUERRA: The courtroom, in this case, is really just a high school classroom, but it still feels pretty legit. Wilson, the judge, sits at the front by the chalkboard. To his right is the defendant and her grandma, and facing them, sitting in desks, are about a dozen freshmen, also known as the jury.
WILSON: Well, I'm going to turn the questions over to the jurors. Would you please raise your hand, as you always do, and stand up and ask the question in a loud voice?
GUERRA: And they have a lot of questions.
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 1: How much was the item?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 2: Why did you do it?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 3: Did your friend, like, have a car or did somebody drop you off?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 4: Did you have peer pressure from your friend to steal it?
UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT 5: Did you think about the consequences before you did it?
GUERRA: They don't just ask about the shoplifting. They get really personal. They learn she doesn't have a great relationship with her mom, so she lives with her grandma. She likes school, but struggles with geometry. She wants to be a child psychologist, and yes, she's tried alcohol before but never drugs. After about 20 minutes of questioning and five minutes of deliberation, the jury forewoman, a ninth-grader named Catherine Vasquez, reads the sentence.
CATHERINE VASQUEZ: You're not going to have contact with your friend for a month. I mean, like, I guess you can do that, right? And you're going to have to apologize to your grandmother orally in front of us and write a letter to JCPenney apologizing.
GUERRA: The jury also sentences her to do 10 hours of community service, and she needs to get a math tutor to help her with geometry. Community service and letters of apology - those are the two most common sanctions in teen courts, and it seems to work. The nonprofit Urban Institute did one of the largest studies on teen courts back in 2002. The study found that those who went through teen court were significantly less likely to break the law again compared to those who went the juvenile court route. Social studies teacher Mike Cruz leads this particular teen court class at Western High School. It's in a pretty tough part of Detroit. He says it's not just the defendant who gets something out of the experience. The students on the jury do, too.
MIKE CRUZ: As far as - I could be a judge. I could be a lawyer. 'Cause if you've never met a lawyer, you grow up thinking - you know, I group like that - you grow up thinking, that's for other people. So you meet a prosecuting attorney. You see him on a regular basis. Just him being here and talking to them kind of breaks that wall down.
GUERRA: And all the kids involved get a lesson in consequences and second chances before they make the kind of mistake that could put them on the wrong path into adulthood. For NPR News, I'm Jennifer Guerra.
CORNISH: This is NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.