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The 15 students sitting in the jury box listened to a mock trial in the Shelby circuit court room Monday night. In the future, the cases will be real and the defendants will be one of their peers.
The students are this year's Teen Court. After their swearing in by Judges Donna Dutton and Linda Armstrong Monday, the court will serve as a sentencing body for juvenile cases that have been found guilty in district court. If a judge refers a defendant to Teen Court for such offenses as shoplifting, truancy, theft and other misdemeanors, members of Teen Court review the facts of the case and hear testimony before recommending punishment. Often the juvenile defendant will speak on his or her behalf and apologize for the crime.
Members of Teen Court are sworn to confidentiality and not allowed to speak about the cases they hear.
Teen Court members can impose penalties up to 80 hours of community service or they can elect to require the offender to write a letter of apology or attend counseling services.
Teen Court members also conduct mock trials and students play the part of judge, prosecutor and defense attorneys.
In the state, 29 Teen Court programs operate in 35 counties. Shelby County has had a Teen Court since 1998. The program requires the cooperation of a district judge; Armstrong has worked with the program since it started and Dutton since she was elected judge two years ago. The Teen Court program here also has voluntary attorneys who work with the students: J. R. Robards, Susan Meschler, Paul Quarles and Jean Cunningham.
Speaking to the group Monday, Judge Armstrong said the group benefits the community but the experience also benefits Teen Court members. She said one or two have gone on to become lawyers, but nearly all have improved their speaking skills.
“I have seen students who would hang their heads and could barely be heard at the beginning speak fluently and intelligently by the end of the period,” Armstrong said.
T. J. Kelly, a Shelby County high school senior, who is participating in this year's Teen Court and has participated in the past, said his oratory skills have grown and the experience has helped him decide he wants to become a judge. He told the teens they will have a chance to help their peers who have run afoul of the law.
“You will be helping those who have fallen off their pedestal and bring them back up,” Kelly said.