Teen Court and Teen Court Too diversionary program gives Manatee County students glimpse at criminal justice reform

Kelley Thompson is a firm believer in the power of a second chance.

From the moment she first walked into the Manatee County Judicial Center as a teen volunteer for Manatee County’s Teen Court and Teen Court Too, Kelley has been focused on holding defendants accountable for their actions in the hopes of deterring them from making the same mistake twice.

With a passion for the judicial system, particularly in criminal justice reform and diversion, Kelley began volunteering as a teen attorney during her sophomore year at Bradenton Christian School. Not only did the experience allow Kelley to significantly impact her community, it also gave her the opportunity to hear criminal cases and gain basic legal and judicial system knowledge.

In the years since, Kelley, who will graduate from Stetson Law in May 2019 before taking the Florida Bar Exam in July, has continued to volunteer as an adult volunteer as a way to give back to the community and share her experience with the next generation of Teen Court volunteers. After graduation, she plans to attend Notre Dame to pursue a Master of Laws degree.

“As a teenager, I felt I was contributing to make Manatee County a better place by helping with the cases that came through the program,” says Kelley. “Teen Court really sparked my interest in criminal justice reform and diversion. I strongly believe that in many circumstances, diverting kids out of the juvenile system and into Teen Court puts them on a more rehabilitative path — a path that leads to their becoming successful adults.”

Established in Manatee County in 1991, Teen Court and Teen Court Too is a diversionary program designed to stop youthful delinquent behavior before a pattern is established. On April 13 from 10 a.m. – 3 p.m., the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller will host a training event to provide young adults, ages 12-17, the opportunity to learn how to be an attorney in real criminal cases for Teen Court and Teen Court Too. The event will be held at the Manatee Community Foundation located at 2820 Manatee Ave. W. in Bradenton.

During the training event, students will learn how to defend and prosecute juvenile offenders that have been diverted or referred to Manatee County’s Teen Court and Teen Court Too diversionary program from the Department of Juvenile Justice and Juvenile Court. Additionally, students will gain basic legal and judicial system knowledge, practice proper court decorum, learn valuable life skills like public speaking and earn community service hours.

“I think the opportunity to get involved in real-life cases as a teenager really gave me a degree of comfort speaking in a courtroom,” says Kelley. “I would advise all students to get involved in the program – whether or not they want to become lawyers. It is a great way to get community service hours and a way to get involved and help other teenagers in the community.”

Teen Court and Teen Court Too was created to allow first-time juvenile offenders, ages 10-17, of misdemeanor offenses a second chance while holding them accountable for their actions. Essentially, Teen Court and Teen Court Too are very similar programs with the only exception being the age of the children. Teen Court is for high school age children and Teen Court Too is for elementary and middle school children.

Cases are heard before a jury of their peers and sanctions are assigned for the defendant to complete. The most common cases that are heard in Teen Court and Teen Court Too involve retail theft, possession of marijuana and fights on school property. Juries are selected for each defendant and, if a jury member has prior knowledge of the defendant, that person is not permitted to sit on the jury.

“The powers that be realized these kids were basically good kids that made a mistake,” says Sue Lockliear, supervisor for Manatee County’s Teen Court and Teen Court Too. “The main difference between these hearings rather than a regular court case is that the child has to admit their guilt to be in the program. The hearing is basically an opportunity to testify about what happened and then the jury decides what their sentence may be within the guidelines.”

Each defendant within the program is required to complete two mandatory sanctions: community service hours and jury duty. However, the jury has the option to hand out additional sanctions, including writing letters of apology or essays, a verbal apology to their parents in court, curfews, restitution or counseling, among other sanctions. Failure to successfully complete the sanctions will result in the case being sent to the State Attorney’s Office and/or Juvenile Court.

Manatee County Teen Court and Teen Court Too is held every Tuesday evening on the fourth floor of the Manatee County Judicial Center at 1051 Manatee Ave. W. in Bradenton. Court may not be held during a holiday week, however. Teen Court and Teen Court Too volunteers will spend roughly 45 minutes going through trial preparation prior to court hearings, which begin at 6 p.m. and normally conclude by 7:15 p.m.

With multiple courtrooms available, volunteers will hear between four to eight cases a week. Youth volunteers fill the following roles: prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, court clerk, bailiff and juror. Only those volunteers who have gone through the attorney-training event, which is held twice a year in the spring and fall, will be able to defend or prosecute a case. Those volunteers who have gone through the training, however, can still opt to fulfill one of the other roles.

In many cases, teen volunteers will fulfill more than one role during their time with Teen Court and Teen Court Too. In some cases, former defendants who have completed their sanctions and had their lives changed will return to Teen Court and Teen Court Too as volunteers themselves.

“We see changes in not just the volunteers but we also see changes in the youth adults that are sent to us as well,” says Cathy Slusser, director of historical resources for the Manatee County Clerk of the Circuit Court and Comptroller. “We see a lot of changes in them for the better. Their lives have been turned around because of this opportunity, and that’s why the program was designed.”

“A lot of kids go through the program and once they’ve completed their sanctions, they’ll come back as volunteers,” says Sue. “That speaks a lot to the program.”