An important aspect of American justice is standing before a jury of one’s peers. Such is the spirit of the North Little Rock Teen Court which has turned five years old this year.
Teen Court is a juvenile prevention program for first-time offenders who have committed a misdemeanor, violation or a school disciplinary referral. Juvenile defendants 14-17 years of age, who admit their guilt, are eligible for the program. Jurors and attorneys are students of North Little Rock High School. Defendants in Teen Court have agreed to have their case heard before the Teen Court jury and accept and complete their sentence of a number of hours or community service, jury service, essays, and mandatory school attendance. If the defendant does not wish to accept the verdict, or fails to complete it in a timely manner, then the case is rejected and sent to the traditional juvenile court system for prosecution.
“When I started at the North Little Rock City Attorney’s Office in 2007, the City Attorney, Jason Carter, asked me to get the program started,” said Paula Juels Jones from the North Little Rock City Attorney’s Office. “I was really excited about it because I had been a prosecutor for Pulaski County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for six years and this would give me a chance to teach trial skills to the participants.”
Jones said she decided that the best way to recruit kids would be to go through North Little Rock High School.
“A friend of mine from high school, Kim Stanley, is the debate teacher so I thought that those kids might be interested in the program,” said Jones. “I went to a conference in New Mexico to learn about Teen Courts.”
Jones said she has been pleased with how the program has progressed since it began.
“We continue to grow every year,” she said. “We started doing Truancy cases and then we started getting referrals from Juvenile Courts.”
Teen Court cases get their referrals to us from Juvenile Court, North Little Rock High School discipline issues, Traffic Court and truancy cases, she said.
“We have court usually once a month when we do about four cases in a row,” said Jones. “We have a mini jury trial for each case. Students act as prosecutors, defense attorneys and jurors. I trail the attorneys.”
While the program is called teen court, it deviates from the American justice system, she said.
“The trial is not to determine guilt or innocence, but only punishment from the ranges provided,” said Jones. ” The jury of students decides the number of community service hours, essays, and jury duty. We require the offender to come back and participate as a juror at least once as to try to persuade them to become a part of the program and to be a part of a group of kids that are positive influences. We have a Community Service Coordinator that keeps, supervises and keeps track of the community service preformed.”
Jones said the mission of the program is to use positive peer pressure to deter juveniles from criminal activity.
“We try to keep juveniles out of Juvenile Court and without criminal records,” she said. “As a result of this mission, all participants, not only offenders, receive a positive view of the justice system. The student attorneys get public speaking experience and learn basic trial advocacy. The offenders learn that the their peers are not impressed with their behavior and they will hold them accountable for their actions.”
According to Shara Brazear, spokeswoman for the North Little Rock School District, students who participate in North Little Rock Teen Court are volunteers who receive no school credit for their service. They spend hours being trained to be student attorneys.
“A special thank you to Paula Juels Jones from the North Little Rock City Attorney’s Office for her insight in creating and organizing North Little Rock Teen Court and her dedication to the students of our city,” said Brazear.
The city and school district recently bestowed awards to participating students and volunteers.
2013 Student Attorney award winners were: Best Attorney — Landon Grimmett; Best Prosecutor — Lauren Grogan; Best Defense Attorney — Dwayne Ferguson; Newcomer of the Year — Madison Raeke; Super Sophomore — Tyron Robinson; Junior Award- Kharonsea Carter.
Special thanks and recognition were bestowed upon attorneys who have volunteered to help the student attorneys. Those volunteers were:
Will Jones, Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney; Luke Daniel, Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney;
Michelle Gollob, Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney; Hannah Gillispie, Pulaski County Deputy Prosecuting Attorney; Phillip Underwood, Deputy Prosecuting Attorney; Connie Phillips, Attorney;
North Little Rock teachers Kim Stanley, Todd Huff, and Michelle Brewer were recognized as being sponsoring teachers; and volunteering judges were: Judge Randy Morley, North Little Rock District Court; Judge Wayne Gruber, Pulaski County District Court; others who helped include: other persons who helped include Officer Mark Stephen and Officer Chip Goree.