In the Town of Lexington, students are learning all aspects of the legal system, serving as judges, attorneys, witnesses and jurors, while also getting a lesson in the importance of making good decisions.
It’s part of the Kids in Court program, created by local leaders in 2005 to address issues of rising crime that came along with rapid growth and development.
Hosted by the Lexington Police Department, Kids in Court is an educational program where children participate in a mock trial. Students hear court testimony and evidence then deliberate as a real jury in order to decide the guilt or innocence of the defendant. Students serve as judge, attorneys, witnesses and jurors, providing an opportunity for them to learn the many layers of the legal and judicial system, said Lexington spokeswoman Jennifer Dowden.
Kids in Court participants, along with adult volunteers, serve in all roles of the trial - judge, attorneys, witnesses and jurors - giving them first-hand experience in the courtroom.
Participants in the program range in age from 8 to 17 years old and come from Lexington School District One.
Lexington created the program with limited funding but the support of many community volunteers. This allows them to offer the program free to participants. South Carolina Educational Television chose the Kids in Court program for use in schools throughout the state. Through a partnership with SCETV, a video was created for schools to use as an educational tool regarding the judicial system.
The use of youth courts has been increasing across the nation. In some cases, they are merely mock trials used as an educational tool for students. In others, they function like a traditional court. The only difference is that all the key roles are played by youth. These courts, which often are operated by juvenile courts, juvenile probation departments, law enforcement, private nonprofit organizations or schools, are designed to provide alternative sanctions for first-time youthful offenders.
There are some 1,050 youth court programs in the country, according to the National Association of Youth Courts.
Youth court programs hope to instill in children a respect for the law, encourage civic engagement and promote educational success through service learning opportunities. Student volunteers learn the roles and responsibilities of various parts of the judicial system – from police officers, attorneys, bailiffs, judges and probation officers – exposing them to potential career opportunities.
As part of the Kids in Court program, students hear court testimony and evidence and deliberate as a real jury to determine the guilt or innocence of a defendant.
Youth courts also benefit the juvenile offenders involved. Many receive sentences from their peers that allow them to take responsibility, be held accountable and make restitution. Sentences can involve performing community service, writing apologies or essays, or making restitutions for damages.
Offenses often include theft, vandalism, disorderly conduct, alcohol or tobacco use, or school disciplinary problems. Usually once the juvenile offender completes the sentence, his slate is wiped clean. Youth courts allow young people with no criminal record to stay out of the juvenile justice system.
Cinderella was charged in Lexington with shoplifting the dress she wore to the ball and speeding in her carriage.
The programs seem to work. According to the Urban Institute’s Evaluation of Teen Courts Project, which was based on four teen court programs studied in four different states (Alaska, Maryland, Arizona and Missouri), the six-month recidivism figures among the programs ranged from 6 percent to 9 percent.
In South Carolina, there are more than 35 separate youth courts serving many different communities and schools, according to the South Carolina Bar.
The police department in Goose Creek runs a youth court program in conjunction with the Department of Juvenile Justice and the school district.
Goose Creek’s youth court is comprised of students from Goose Creek and Stratford high schools. Students become a part of the youth court program by signing up for this credited course at either of the high schools, according to Capt. Dave Aarons. The students receive training classes where city judges, police officers and attorneys are called in as guest instructors. During court, each student is given the opportunity to be the bailiff, defendant or prosecution attorney, or one of the three judges who preside over each individual case.
The offenders are recommended for the program by police officers, and must be approved by the Department of Juvenile Justice, Aarons said. If they are approved, they face a tribunal of their peers.
By going through the youth court program, juvenile offenders can avoid going through the state’s juvenile justice system and come through it with a clean record, Aarons said.
The Town of Mount Pleasant developed the state’s first youth court program in 1995. It is run through the town and sanctioned by the Charleston County Solicitor’s Office.
The student volunteers can enter the program in eighth grade, serving as a bailiff or clerk of court. By eleventh grade, they are eligible to serve as attorneys or judges, according to Officer Michael Reidenbach, the youth court coordinator.
Students are tapped through school guidance officials and must undergo training and certification, including a “mini Bar exam,” Reidenbach said.
“We see the development in these students,” Reidenbach said. “Even if they’re not interested in a legal career, there are so many other things they learn – leadership skills, public speaking.”
The juvenile offenders in the program often have committed nonviolent crimes like petty larceny, vandalism, disturbing school or simple assault. They are selected for the youth court program after their case is reviewed at the police department. The student judges look at each case and try to tailor a sentence appropriate to the crime.
“This is restorative justice,” Reidenbach said. “We want the offenders to realize the harm caused by their actions. If they got into a fight, we want them to see how they’ve harmed not only the victim but their parents, their school.
“Our goal is that they never go back into a courtroom again,” said Reidenbach, who first became involved in the program when he was an eighth grade volunteer.
The National Youth Court Center, the American Bar Association, the National Crime Prevention Council and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention all provide materials to support youth courts. The South Carolina Bar Law Related Education Division and the South Carolina Department of Education Office of Safe Schools and Youth Services have full-time staff available to assist communities and/or schools with the implementation, training and ongoing support of local youth courts.