Teen court program gives kids 2nd chance

Neighborhood groups work to create 'restorative justice' programs


JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Twelve-year-old Keion Wilson is in trouble. He was suspended from school for fighting and is in court for that facing a misdemeanor charge that could follow him for a long time.

"This might be going on my record," Wilson said. "I want to be a good athlete and I want to have a clean record."

But the court Wilson is in is different. He's in teen court, where other kids are the lawyers, prosecutors and the jury. Make no mistake: It's still a court and punishment will be dealt out.

It's a form of justice that could save taxpayers millions and set a young person on the right path. It's called "restorative justice" and it's something neighborhood groups are working to bring to areas all around Jacksonville.

"To keep juveniles who made a mistake and have a minor offense," said Lawrence Hills, program director for teen court in Duval County. "Normally misdemeanor offenses such as petty theft, possession of marijuana less than 20 grams, it's to give them an opportunity to correct the incident overall and the opportunity to move forward in life without an arrest record."

Instead of an arrest, the teen is given a citation by the officer to appear in court. There are rules that must be followed, and it's only for minor crimes.

Teen court has been around since 2002. Hill said Duval County's program has a 90 percent success rate.

In Wilson's case, he was found guilty of being involved in the fight. He will have to apologize, write a letter to his mom, do community service, and become a member of the teen court team.

"I am kind of excited so I can work with other teens and tell them not to go down the wrong path," Wilson said.

This idea is a form of restorative justice, a way to rehabilitate someone just about ready to head the wrong way.

"Many of us during our time have committed some type of offense that we are not very proud of, but we had opportunities back then to correct them, and that is what restorative justice is," Hill said. "We have the situation where you hit someone, you hit your brother, and your parents made you go apologize to that neighbor and the next week you were friends again. And I think we have gotten away from that model."

The sheriff and state attorney call it the civil citation process, where instead of an arrest, the teen or juvenile is given a second chance.

"Well, because a lot of these kids are kids who made a mistake, and if that is truly what they have done and they are admirable to rehabilitation, in reality, we've got to give them that chance," State Attorney Angela Corey said. "We really do because at that point they are not thinking that one thing they do could keep them out of the military, it could keep them from getting a job, it could affect their scholarship chances."

Now groups want to broaden the program. ICARE Jacksonville, a group of community activists, want to take the idea to individual neighborhoods.

"It's really a community-based program that involves people within the community," said Nancy Ricker, of ICARE. "Not only adults, but youth who come and sit on neighborhood accountability boards and who give the youth feedback and help them understand if they don't, what they did was wrong. And give them some options to know that they are there to support them as they go though this process of brining restorative justice to their neighborhood."

Instead of the courthouse, schools and community centers are now being used.

"It really helps the community," said Sharon Banks, of the Neighborhood Accountability Board. "It says we are going to take our community back and we are going to show the youth how much we care about them. And it gives the youth the opportunity not to have a record, to wipe the slate clean and start fresh."

For Sheriff John Rutherford, the idea of restorative justice or civil citations are win-win for both. Not only are the kids keeping their records clean, but it saves all of a lot of money.

"Well, we are not giving them a break, we are holding them accountable," Rutherford said. "They are going to be held accountable. We are not just going to hold them accountable to the criminal justice system, where they bump into all the other kids who are out there stealing and robbing and shooting people and those sorts of things. We are going to guard them from that for the time being, but hold them accountable though other methodologies."

It costs about $5,000 to arrest and process a teen as opposed to $386 to allow teens to go through teen court or a neighborhood board.