By Martie Thompson
Teen Court, developed in Texas in the 1980s, is based upon the premise that youthful offenders will more readily accept responsibility for their actions when judged and sentenced by their peers. In St. Johns County, Teen Court has been in existence since 1999 as part of the St. Johns County Clerk of Court’s office, under the watchful eye of Theresa Simmons, the county’s Teen Court coordinator. In her position, she not only is responsible for acting as a liaison with the State Attorney’s office and the St. Johns County Sheriff’s office for referrals who become the “defendants” in Teen Court, but also for recruiting teen volunteers from area high schools who become the “prosecutors,” “defense attorneys,” and “juries” in Teen Court.
“I have worked in various departments at the Clerk’s office and believe me every job is important here; however, the best position I’ve had and have a passion for is Teen Court,” Simmons said. “I got a chance to make a difference in the lives of children — making a difference one child at a time — and I love it.”
“Theresa has been a critical and integral component of our Teen Court,” said St. Johns County Clerk of Court Brandon Patty. “She’s been in her position for 21 years and had the first Teen Court case in 2000.”
Simmons said since its inception, Teen Court has tried 1,938 cases and more than 500 volunteers have been involved. Prior to the pandemic, Teen Court was held in the St. Johns County Courtroom Annex on Tuesday evenings from 5 p.m. – 9 p.m.
The purpose of Teen Court is to direct minor cases — first time misdemeanors such as retail theft, battery, trespassing and disruption of school — away from the formal juvenile court. Those offenders who are referred to Teen Court, as well as their parents, meet with Simmons to determine if they are willing to voluntarily participate in the program. The offender must admit guilt to their charges, testify truthfully in Teen Court, and be willing to accept the sanctions of the Teen Court. Assuming they do, usually no further action is taken and the case is dismissed by the State Attorney.
The defendant has a “teen-defense attorney” assigned to their case who is responsible for bringing out mitigating circumstances in an effort to sway the jury to reduce the penalties the jury is required to impose. There is also a “teen-prosecuting attorney” who is trying to bring forward all the reasons why a stronger penalty should be imposed by the jury.
The “juries” in Teen Court are made up of trained middle and high school volunteers along with a few previous defendants from Teen Court, who are mandated to serve on a jury as part of their sentence. This offers the young offenders a unique opportunity for rehabilitation. The jurors listen to both of the teen volunteer attorneys’ arguments and then retire to the deliberation room to come to agreement about the number of jury duties and community service hours the defendant must serve, as well as any other appropriate sanctions.
Simmons said the teenage volunteers in Teen Court also gain from their involvement and in fact several have gone on to law school themselves.
“Teen Court gives the volunteers a sense of confidence,” she said. “They learn to stand up tall and speak clearly. This translates well to the high school and college classroom.”
The program, like many, has been on hiatus the last year due to the pandemic, but Patty said his office is constantly monitoring the delta variant and is hopeful to restart Teen Court this winter. Simmons will be retiring in December, a loss that Patty said will be big.
“Our intent is to continue to offer Teen Court, and in fact to grow the program,” Patty said. “This is a legacy program through multiple clerks of court and we want to continue to build it.”
Simmons said she is still sending out information to teen volunteers who request it (email firstname.lastname@example.org if you are interested) and plans to come back as a volunteer after her retirement to lend assistance and knowledge. Patty said his office will post the Teen Court restart date to its website (www.stjohnsclerk.com) as soon as it is set.
Photo courtesy Teresa Monson
St. Johns County Clerk of Court Brandon Patty and Teen Court Coordinator Theresa Simmons.