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Teen Court Could Be Promising Alternative to Traditional Juvenile Justice System

Document date: April 15, 2002
Released online: April 15, 2002
Contact: Renu Shukla, (202) 261-5278, rshukla@ui.urban.org

For Many Teen Offenders, Peer-Run Court Means Less Recidivism

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 15, 2002—Teen courts may be a positive alternative to the normal juvenile justice process for jurisdictions that want to expand intervention options for young, first-time juvenile offenders and reduce youth recidivism. Recidivism rates among teen court youth were similar and in some cases lower than those of youth in the regular juvenile justice system, according to a four-state evaluation by the Urban Institute. Findings from the evaluation were released today by U.S. Assistant Attorney General Deborah J. Daniels at the National Youth Court Conference.

The report, "The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders," by Urban Institute researchers Jeffrey Butts, Janeen Buck, and Mark Coggeshall, is an evaluation of the impact of teen courts on youth recidivism in four states: Alaska, Arizona, Maryland, and Missouri. The jurisdictions in these states use the full range of teen court models currently in use across the country.

Teen courts are designed for young offenders who have committed less serious acts of delinquency, such as theft, shoplifting, possession of stolen property, or vandalism. They rely on the premise that if peer pressure can cause teenagers to get into trouble, positive peer pressure might help steer them away from future trouble.

Researchers measured pre-court attitudes and post-court recidivism among more than 500 juveniles referred to teen court for non-violent criminal charges, including theft, shoplifting, and vandalism. Recidivism of teen court youth was compared to that of nearly 500 similar youth in the regular juvenile justice system.

Key Findings

In Alaska, Arizona, and Missouri, teen courts were compared with the average juvenile justice response to young, first-time offenders. Youth handled by teen court were less likely to commit another crime and be re-referred to the juvenile justice system within six months. In Alaska, recidivism among teen court youth was 6 percent, compared with 23 percent of those handled by the traditional process. In Missouri, the recidivism rate was 9 percent for teen court youth and 27 percent for the traditional process. In Arizona, the rate was 9 percent, compared with 15 percent in the traditional system—though this difference is not statistically significant.

In Maryland, the results of the teen court process were compared with a more proactive police diversion program that provided similar services, but was managed and delivered by police officers and a police department social worker, and did not require youth to appear in court. Recidivism rates of both groups were extremely low, with 8 percent among teen court youth and 4 percent among youth in the police diversion program—but that difference is not statistically significant.

"Our evaluation shows that teen court might be a better alternative to the regular juvenile justice process in jurisdictions that do not, or cannot, provide a meaningful response for every young, first-time nonviolent offender," concludes Butts. "And, given the fact that teen courts operate with largely volunteer labor and with very low budgets, their cost-effectiveness might be very high."

"The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders" is the first report from the Evaluation of Teen Courts Project, funded by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention in the Office of Justice Programs at the U.S. Department of Justice. It is available at www.urban.org, or email jpc@ui.urban.org. The Urban Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan policy research and education organization that examines the social, economic, and governance challenges facing the nation.

Topics/Tags: | Crime/Justice

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