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In Teen Court, young offenders would be sentenced by peers

In a groundbreaking new project, Henderson County plans to redefine the experience of teenagers in the legal system. In the newly-developed teen court set to start soon, nonviolent juvenile offenders will truly be judged by a jury of their peers.

In teen court, teen offenders from ages 11-19 will be directed to a court made up of teen jurors, defended by teen attorneys, with teen clerks and bailiffs present. Though the judge will be an adult and adult attorneys will supervise, the consequence of the offense will be up to Henderson County’s teenagers. Because the program charges the offender as guilty, the court’s purpose is to decide where to direct the offender. The Hope Coalition, a local organization that directs the rehabilitation, substance abuse prevention and substance abuse treatment of adults and youth in Henderson County, has pioneered this court’s development.

The coalition’s criminal analyst, Ashley Polk, describes how the court functions.

“The jury decides on the different sanctions, and the defendant has to complete those sanctions within an allotted amount of time, and when they complete that, the charge is dropped,” she said. “They don’t have to go into regular court.”

The goal of teen court is to serve as a diversionary program for teen offenders, offering rehabilitation and educational resources to help them correct their behavior, stay out of the legal system and lighten the caseload of local courts. Teen court not only allows teens to redeem themselves and keep a clean record, but works with the Hope Coalition to solve their issues at the source.

“The teens will have a mandatory sanction of eight hours of community service outside of what the jury decides, and this is through a program called ASPIRE, which offers vocational directions,” Polk said. “The defendants are interviewed by the program and they are directed to whatever community service will benefit them.”

Aside from offering an alternative to punishment for offenders, the court also offers an opportunity for civic involvement from all Henderson County teenagers. The teen court relies on local middle and high school students to volunteer and serve as jurors, attorneys, bailiffs and clerks. In order to participate on the most basic level as a juror, teens only have to complete a three-hour training course. In order to serve as attorneys, teens must complete this training, complete a mock Bar exam and sit as a juror for two court sessions. The attorney requirements for mock trial students, though, are different and in development because these students have prior experience.

“We have a giant handbook to give out. It’s eighty-four pages, but it has absolutely everything they need to know, and it has a script for the judges, prosecutors, and defense,” Polk said. “We will also have licensed mentor attorneys for the prosecution and defense.”

The court is closely monitored by licensed attorneys and an adult judge, giving teenagers the opportunity to be civically involved, get job experience and take on adult responsibilities in a safe controlled environment.

As the teen court develops in Henderson County, it takes inspiration from other counties in the region while establishing itself with its own local twist. Teen courts in Catawba and Mecklenburg counties have had immense success, and because of this, it has received ample local support.

“The program has public backing from public defender Beth Stang, Sheriff (Lowell) Griffin, the DA Andrew Murray and Chief (Blair) Myhand,” Polk said.

Henderson County is currently ironing out the final details of the court so it can start this month. Organizers are currently searching for a space to turn into a courtroom so the experience feels as real as possible for those participating and those being tried. Local mock trial coaches like Jerry Smith have made generous local efforts to recruit mock trial students as jurors and attorneys, even taking some to other teen courts to see how they function.

Any teen in the Henderson County public school system can participate in the court as well, allowing teenagers to learn about the importance of community service and offering them actual participation in the legal system and the future of their peers. Teen Court aims for restorative justice and the involvement of anyone possible above all else.

Organizers hope to convene the first Teen Court next month. The Hendersonville City Council is expected to take up a recommendation on March 2 to allow the court to meet in the City Operations Center.

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A senior at Hendersonville High School, Halle Vazquez is a free-lance reporter for the Hendersonville Lightning. As a member of the Henderson County Youth Council, she was involved in recruiting high school students to serve as jurors on the Teen Court. For more information email