The teenager had told his dad he was staying all night at a friend’s house.

Instead, he and the friend went out overnight, and were caught at 4:30 in the morning taking items out of cars. A GPS unit, chewing tobacco, a vaping device, some clothes.

Now, he faced a jury of his peers.

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But the teenagers who were listening to his case weren’t deciding guilt or innocence. How to punish him wasn’t an issue, either. Rather, they were paying close attention to the words the 17-year-old used when he talked about what he had done and determining whether he understood the seriousness of his crime. Most of them had gotten in trouble themselves and been through the teen court program, and asked to serve as a juror in future cases.

Teen court is a program of Reach for Youth, a United Way of Johnson County agency that serves Marion and Johnson County kids ages 7 to 18 who might need family or group counseling or who have gotten in trouble. The goal is to help the family or child cope with their challenges, learn about consequences and, in the end, not continue making bad choices, such as not going to school, breaking into cars or, more often lately, sexting, said Aaron McBride, director of teen court and prevention services.

The record for the teen court program speaks for itself. About 13 percent of Johnson County children who go through the program get in trouble again, compared to a 39 percent recidivism rate for teens in the traditional juvenile court system. In 2016, nearly 180 offenders faced a jury of teen peers through the teen court program.

The statistics show few of them will get in trouble again.

“Imagine the need that would exist in this community if we weren’t around and if the United Way didn’t help us,” McBride said.

While the teen court jury isn’t deciding guilt or innocence or ordering an offender to the detention center, the crime the teen has committed and the seriousness is not glossed over. The proceedings start with the judge reading the probable-cause affidavit, which includes a police accounting of everything that happened and the evidence and investigation.

During a recent case, the offender and the jury heard some serious words: guilt, illegal conduct, witness reports.

Then, the jurors get to work. They get to question the offender, focusing on why they did it, what they’ve learned and how they’ve tried to make it right. They listen to the words the offender uses to determine if the teen truly takes responsibility, or blames it on someone else.

The teen initially said it was his friend’s idea to try to open car doors. His buddy took the GPS and gave it to him.

The jurors drilled down. And then he owned it, saying it was stupid and embarrassing and he had no right to take items from people who had worked hard for their belongings. He had already lost his car, apologized to his family and was grounded to the extent that he wasn’t allowed to leave his yard.

He had chosen to come that night. Participating in teen court is optional, and many of the teens come at the urging of juvenile probation. It’s a chance to do the right thing, learn and have your record cleared. Teens who shoplift, for example, can go through teen court if it is their first offense.

The consequences the jury assigns can include attending workshops, writing essays, such as researching the consequences you would face if you committed the crime as an adult, completing community service, paying people back and making apologies.

In the car break-in case, the teen had already completed community service and was asked to write an essay and come back as a juror. He was given a few moments to gather his thoughts, then had to make a verbal apology to his father in the courtroom.

The children who go through the program are assessed by Reach for Youth to detect underlying issues or stressors that could be causing problems, said Chris Ponti, diversion manager for the program.

In a recent case, a teen boy was in trouble for sexting, and there were four female victims. The teen boy did not show remorse, and jurors were upset that the teen did not understand the impact of his actions, McBride said.

The parents of the offenders are always involved and agree to the program. In some cases, the parents initiate their children going through teen court because they don’t want them to continue making poor choices. In other cases, the teen court process is educational for the parents, and helps them realize the seriousness of their child’s actions, McBride said.

“We’re about providing a huge impact,” McBride said.

The program is always in need of volunteers, including teen volunteers who want to gain experience in public speaking and give back to their communities. Not all the jurors are former offenders; some are high school students who want the experience and community service.

Perry Meridian High School junior Mackenzie Lewis started volunteering her freshman year, and she serves as a juror or attorney most weeks. She always asks whether the offender has had consequences from his or her parents or the school previously. She listens closely to how they speak about their crime and whether their words show repentance.

She and other jurors ask about ongoing punishment, grades, community service and paying people back.

The court’s volunteer judge, Mark Liechty, mentored the program’s teen attorneys when he was a law student. Now as judge, he sees the teens receive what he calls useful consequences, such as having to come back to serve on a jury to get a different perspective.

“It’s always appropriate for them to be more involved in their community,” McBride said.

“Maybe you made a mistake, but you are able to serve your community.”

At a glance

Reach for Youth

What: A nonprofit agency serving children ages 7 to 18 in Marion and Johnson County.

Work: Children and families can receive clinical services and counseling, attend workshops and go through the teen court program in an effort to prevent them from committing another crime.

Who: Nearly 300 Johnson County residents were helped by Reach for Youth in 2016. About 180 teens went through the teen court program.

Donate

Reach for Youth is a partner agency of the United Way of Johnson County, which funds 18 local nonprofit agencies and operates eight internal programs. United Way and agencies it helps support helped 37,000 Johnson County residents last year.

If you want to donate or begin a giving campaign at your employer or organization, contact the United Way of Johnson County.

Address: 594 Ironwood Drive, Franklin

Phone: (317) 736-7840

Online: uwjc.org

Author photo
Michele Holtkamp is editor of the Daily Journal. She can be reached at mholtkamp@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2774.