As the saying goes, "You do the crime, you do the time," and juvenile first-time offenders shouldn't expect to get off easy in Wilson County's Teen Court.
Teen Court is a diversion program that was established by coordinator Linda Schenk with Judge Barry Tatum 14 years ago. Cases heard by Teen Court are minor crimes which come to them either from the school system or from the juvenile court system. The juvenile appears before Teen Court, admits his or her guilt, retells their story and receives a sentencing.
If the defendant completes their sentencing within the 90-day period, charges are dropped with no probation. "There are a lot of benefits to Teen Court," said Schenk. "We have court at night so nobody misses school or work. There is less time in court, and the cost is less ... Most kids who come through Teen Court are good kids who just made a mistake."
Trained teenage jurors are recruited from local schools by Schenk, who said they benefit from the Teen Court experience, as well.
"I have kids who volunteer for four or five years. They end up with hundreds of hours of community service on their resumes, and it looks good on their college applications," she explained. However, they also walk away with new knowledge and friends. "One of my favorite things is they make friends from other schools," Schenk said.
Teen jurors take their jobs very seriously - spending much time questioning the juveniles, their parents and then deliberating to decide the best punishment. In most cases, sentencing includes a variant of community service, essay writing and research.
Schenk said their caseload varies. Sometimes, court will be held two Tuesdays per month - and other times, like in April, court is held every Tuesday. The Wilson Post was invited to sit in on Tuesday evening as Teen Court heard three cases.
In the first case, a juvenile was charged with bringing a weapon on school property. The offender admitted that they unknowingly brought a pocketknife to school.
"I spent the night with a friend and put on my jeans from the night before. My pocketknife was in there, and I forgot about it and wore them to school," the juvenile recounted. However, later that day the knife fell from their jean pocket and was reported to school officials.
The child was ordered to complete 4,500 hours at MAP (Modified Academic Program) Academy by the school board. In Teen Court, the child's parent said the behavior was out of character.
After a short deliberation, jurors sentenced the juvenile to 12 hours of community service.
In another case, a juvenile was charged with having alcohol at school. The juvenile admitted they were given a water bottle containing a brown liquid by their best friend during school hours. This person was unaware that the bottle contained cinnamon-flavored whiskey, but stashed the bottle in a locker.
A School Resource Officer took the juvenile out of class for questioning. The juvenile was also ordered 4,500 hours at MAP.
Jurors sentenced the defendant with community service hours, a Better Choices class and an essay.
Senior jurors Peyton Smith (Friendship Christian School), Courtney Keller (Friendship Christian School), and Holdon Guy (Homeschooled) spoke with The Post about what it is like to be part of Teen Court.
Smith, who has participated for four years, said her goal is to become an attorney, and that it was a great way to learn about the judicial system.
For Keller, being part of Teen Court has taught her to be more discerning. "The stories move you and influence your sentence. We want to be nice to them because they are our peers, but we also want to do what is best for them," she said.
"We get an obvious view of what it looks like to break the law and have an inside understanding," Guy added.