Talbot County Teen Court is a voluntary diversion program that allows first time teen offenders, ages 13 to 17, to be judged by a jury of their peers rather than having their case heard by an intake officer or the Court.
According to Bob Coleman, Talbot County Teen Court Coordinator, “The Talbot County Teen Court’s performance record is exceptional. Nearly 90 percent of the teens tried through Teen Court don’t get in trouble again while they are in school.” He adds, “ In addition, there are several cases where first time offenders have become an integral part of Teen Court and worked their way up to become attorneys and even judges in Teen Court.”
Talbot Teen Court serves two distinct groups of local high school students. The first group includes first time offenders, who find themselves crosswise with the law. The second group includes student volunteers who perform the role of judges, jurors and attorneys during the trial. Volunteers learn the inner workings of the justice system and respondents are offered a second chance. Cases are referred to Teen Court by local law enforcement agencies, school systems, and the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services.
According to Coleman, “Trials are conducted in the Talbot County Circuit Court on Washington Street and that is where the reality of their offenses often becomes real. The Circuit Courtroom is quite impressive and when these first time offenders enter the Courtroom a visible attitude change usually occurs. Most of the kids are remorseful.”
Founded in 1999, Talbot Teen Court has tried about 500 cases. Typical offenses range from underage alcohol and drug consumption to theft under $100, vandalism, fighting and trespassing. The Court is in session approximately 10 times between August and June, coinciding with the public school year, and tries approximately three to four cases each session. Cases are presented to the volunteer teen jury for determining sanctions for the offender. After careful consideration of the facts and circumstances, the jury determines a fair and appropriate disposition.
There are minimum and maximum ranges of sanctions depending on the severity of the offense. At minimum, offenders serve eight to 60 hours of community service and they must also return to Teen Court and take part as jury members. A jury may also mandate that the youth attend educational programs and write apology letters and essays and provide restitution, when applicable. Respondents then have 60 days to complete their sanctions and if they do, there records are expunged. Should they fail to complete their sanctions, however, their cases are referred to the Department of Juvenile Services for their formal intake process.
Many of these teens are underage alcohol offenders or over the counter drug abusers who require an evaluation by a qualified addictions counselor to determine the extent of their addictions. In these cases, offenders are required to complete any recommendation made by the addictions counselor in addition to community service hours and jury duties. Coleman adds, “These evaluations used to be free to Teen Court respondents, but due to reduced budgets, this is no longer the case. For some years the Teen Court has operated under a grant from the State of Maryland, and while we will still receive some funds from the State, we were recently notified that our grant was cut but 76% this year.”
The Teen Court Steering Committee, comprised of community members, guides
the Teen Court Program, and its membership includes, Tim Haynes, Department of Juvenile Services; Gary Pearce, Talbot Partnership; Glen Plutschak, Talbot County Drug Court Coordinator; Brighton Laznovsky, Addictions Counselor, Talbot County Health Department; Marquell Thomas, Teen Court Student Representative; and Bob Coleman, Talbot County Teen Court Coordinator.
In addition to seeking community support for these evaluations, Coleman utilizes community partners for the community service hours required of offenders. These community partners include the YMCA of the Chesapeake, The Pines Genesis Eldercare, Talbot County Community Center, Talbot County Parks & Recreation, the Easton Volunteer Fire Department, the Neighborhood Service Center, the Historical Society of Talbot County, Talbot County Humane Society, St. Michaels Housing Authority, Pickering Creek Environmental Center, Cross Courts Athletic Club, B.P.O. Elks Lodge of Easton, and Young Life.
Coleman states that the Teen Court program developed through community collaboration and is now managed by Talbot Partnership, who serves as its fiscal agent. He comments, “People thought it was the right thing to do and the program is run by people who care about the kids.”
Coleman recalls his own interest in Teen Court came about through serving as chairman of the B.P.O. Elks Lodge of Easton’s Drug Awareness Program. Today, Coleman also serves as the Drug Awareness Chairman for the Southeast District of the MD, DE, DC Elks Association, which includes all of the B.P.O. Elks Lodges on the Eastern Shore and Southern Delaware. He comments, “Since 1982, the Elks have developed an effective, community-based drug-prevention program by partnering with federal agencies including the Drug Enforcement Agency, Office of National Drug Control Policy, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, and national organizations such as Pride Youth Programs. These partnerships ensure the Elks Drug Awareness Program addresses the leading drug abuse issues facing communities today.”
In addition to grant funding, Talbot Teen Court relies on the support of individuals. Donations can be made through Talbot Partnership by calling 410-819-8067. This fall, Teen Court will recruit 12 student volunteers to serve as attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, jurors and judges. In addition, Coleman is seeking an adult volunteer to help with administering the program. For further information, contact Bob Coleman at 410-310-9144.
In photo: Pictured is Bob Coleman, Talbot County Teen Court Coordinator. Nearly 90 percent of the teens tried through Talbot County Teen Court don’t get in trouble again while they are in school.