By Thomas Goldsmith

The judge was a local lawyer. Prosecutors and defense attorneys ranged in years from 15 to 21. All the jurors were in their teens.

Most significantly, the person in the dock was 13, a middle school student who appeared at Teen Court in Robeson County. He was trying craft a future unimpeded by a record of arrest and conviction.

“You were charged with disorderly conduct,” said Jessica Scott, the Lumberton lawyer serving as judge.

The teen agreed, telling Scott he was unable to stay in his seat during class. The young prosecutors and defenders drew out all the details. He said he had taken medication for his condition until the side effects outweighed the problem.

However, the young man, called a respondent, had already agreed he was guilty; he was in Teen Court to be sentenced by a jury of his peers.

“Come back and participate with Teen Court,” Scott told the teen after a six-person jury decided he must perform community service, serve on the court, write a letter of apology, and meet other requirements.

Teen Court respondents between 16 and 18 can avoid having an adult record in state court, a potential obstacle when enrolling in college, joining the military, or finding a job.

“Try to help other people that are in the same situation you were in,” Scott said, after conferring with the teen and his mother about finding behavioral health services. “If this happens again you are going to go to the other, bad place.”

If the teen fails, he’ll return to state juvenile court, joining a population who are more likely to have further involvement with the state court system.

A program with data to back it

Strongly intentioned programs like these exist all over the country, as educators, police and sociologists try to help at-risk kids and young offenders. But the North Carolina Youth Violence Prevention Coalition stands out because hard numbers show, in large part, that its efforts are working.

The five-year, UNC-Chapel Hill-based effort earned a $6.5 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control to operate in Robeson County. Elements included the Teen Court, designed to reduce teen violence and delinquent recidivism, diverting students from what’s called the “schools-to-prison pipeline.”  The program’s 12-month recidivism rate is about 8.2 percent, compared to a typical juvenile court rate of 26 percent.

In other research-based efforts, the Parenting Wisely program helped parents and teens get along better. A Positive Action portion went after aggressive behavior such as bullying and substance abuse among students.

Between 2010 and 2014 in Robeson County, according to a program analysis released in December:

  • Non-school based offenses decreased by 47 percent
  • Delinquency complaints decreased by 29 percent and
  • Juvenile arrests for aggravated assault were down by 18 percent.

Not all results were positive when compared to other counties, or at least required parsing by study designer Paul Smokowski, a former UNC School of Social Work professor who’s moved to the University of Kansas.

“The changes in Robeson County were stronger, meaning that it decreased faster through the time of our intervention,” said Smokowski, who returned to Lumberton earlier in January to share results with participants.

“We don’t understand programs that were going on in all 100 counties in NC,” he said. “What we did see in Robeson is faster change.”

Corporal punishment: Down 81 percent

From the point of view of opponents of corporal punishment, the program achieved notable success in reducing the practice. Before 2010, Robeson County far exceeded other North Carolina counties, making up about 40 percent of instances of this school-based punishment statewide.

The Positive Action program in schools took a strong stance against corporal punishment, urging teachers and administrators to follow the practice of “treating each other the way that you would like to be treated.” Data showed that during the program period, corporal punishment cases, occurring mostly in schools with large numbers of Lumbee Indian students, decreased by more than 80 percent.

What the numbers showed (excerpt):

  • Juvenile arrests for all reasons decreased by 7 percent in Robeson County from 2010 to 2014.
  • Juvenile arrests for aggravated assault decreased by 18 percent in Robeson County during that time.,
  • Juvenile arrests for non-aggravated assaults decreased by 2 percent.
  • The number of long-term suspensions for school infractions decreased by 9 percent in Robeson County schools between 2010 and 2014.
  • The number of short-term suspensions decreased by 12 percent during that time. These rates also decreased in Columbus County, our comparison county, and other rural and urban counties.

Source: “Final Progress Report for 2010-2016: North Carolina Youth Violence Prevention Center”

“We do not claim that the Positive Action program is fully responsible for the 81 percent decrease in corporal punishment from 2010 to 2014; however, no other program in the schools was working to decrease disciplinary problems and bolster a positive school climate,” Smokowski’s report said. “Positive Action sought to change the school climate with reduced school hassles, thereby reducing disciplinary problems. When problems occurred, disciplinary cases could be referred to Teen Court instead of using corporal punishment.”

Alejandra Reyes, 25, Teen Court coordinator, keeps trials moving briskly and efficiently. She also monitors the progress of respondents, who range from 11 to 18 years in age. Staff create an individual service plan for each participant, with possible additional help including mental-health counseling.

“I make sure that they get back on the right track,” Reyes said before a January session. “For me personally, when I have a client who doesn’t successfully complete the program, I wonder what I could have done better.”

‘Respondents are not horrible people’

Many of the respondents come from tough family situations, including early exposure to drug use. A typical participant might be charged with an offense such as simple possession of marijuana.

“They might be living with an uncle and aunt, or a grandmother,” Reyes said. “The parents have their own problems going on.”

The pool of jurors and attorneys draws both from young people who have been through Teen Court and from high-achieving student volunteers in the region, who can get public-service credit and college-resume material from the experience.

“The respondents are getting that experience to meet with people they have probably never met,” said Alexis Dawson, volunteer services coordinator for Teen Court.

Some community-based programs with origins in academia simply disappear when their grants give out. But the Robeson County Teen Court lives on.

“After the five-year grant, I created a nonprofit Robeson County Teen Court and Youth Services foundation,” said Jim Barbee, an original participant who continues as executive director of the foundation.

The program’s continued grant and county funding recognizes its research-based status, said Barbee, who also cited the value of participants’ avoiding a record of arrest and conviction.

“It’s like a bad tattoo; you can’t get rid of it,” Barbee said.

Learn more about:

The North Carolina Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention


The North Carolina Youth Violence Prevention Center


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Thomas Goldsmith worked in daily newspapers for 33 years before joining North Carolina Health News. Goldsmith is a native Tar Heel who attended the UNC-Chapel Hill, and worked at newspapers in Tennessee...

One reply on “Teens Avoid the “Bad Tattoo” of Arrest & Conviction”

  1. Thank you for this story. What the article doesn’t mention though is how important this program is, especially in North Carolina because our state is only one of two that continues to automatically try 16 and 17-year-olds as adults in the criminal justice system. The fight to ‘Raise the Age’ continues.

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