By Mary Ashton Mills

 

Often time teenagers make bad decisions. It’s all part of growing up—testing the boundaries and learning about the repercussions. Sometimes the decisions are worse than texting something rude to a friend or skipping class. Minor possession, theft, disorderly conduct and possession of marijuana at school are all examples of arrests where most kids would love to have that coveted “get out of jail free” card.

It is tough to explain to a teenager that one quick decision turned wrong can leave a scar so deep that it can change the course of their entire life, quite possibly keeping them from certain colleges or careers. Columbia County teenage first-time offenders are fortunate to be considered for an alternative system of justice, allowing them a second chance at a clean criminal record.

Thanks to a joint venture between Columbia County Community Connections, Columbia County Juvenile Court, Harlem Department of Public Safety, Columbia County Board of Education and Grovetown Department of Public Safety, Teen Court is now in full session.

What makes this program unique is that while these juvenile offenders are given a second chance, other teenagers in the community are getting real life experience in the courtroom. Justice for Youth by Youth is a fitting motto. Teenagers from Columbia County School District serve as jurors, prosecuting and defense attorneys, bailiffs and court clerks. Being defended and prosecuted by their peers is a unique form of justice.

For 17-year-old Jordan Diamillo of Martinez, serving as the court’s defense attorney has shed light on a pathway she didn’t know she wanted to take. “I used to want to be a physical therapist and it wasn’t until Judge Flanagan introduced me to Teen Court that I got an interest,” says Diamillo who now hopes to go to law school after she graduates from high school and college. “It has given me the pathway I needed to find. I am grateful for that,” she says.

Whose Case Gets Heard?

Columbia County first time juvenile offenders between the ages of 12 and 17, who are willing to admit responsibility for their offense, are considered for Teen Court. The Juvenile Services Intake Counselor refers each case to Teen Court. If the director of Teen Court determines that the case is appropriate for Teen Court, then the process begins. Meetings with the juvenile and their families are scheduled, the process is explained and waivers are signed. As long as the juvenile agrees to actively participate in Teen Court, upon completion of their time in court and sentencing, their record will be free of all criminal charges. By completing their sentence of community service hours, these juvenile offenders are learning the art of giving back to the community.

Who Benefits?

The juvenile court system spends less time on minor first-time offenders and more time and energy on serious juvenile offenders, making this a cost-saving program. In addition, the county is raising responsible youth, who are learning early about the consequences of breaking the law. In addition young people are learning what it means to give back to the community.

Youth who are interested in the legal system also become beneficiaries with real-life court experiences presented to them during training and in Teen Court. By experiencing this hands-on legal training, student’s eyes are opened to many career paths in the legal field.

How To Apply

Kari Poss, Teen Court Director, is thrilled over the launch of this program in January 2015. “I have wanted this program for years and now it has come to fruition and is doing extremely well. We are taking a negative choice and turning it into a positive end result,” says Poss. This type of restorative justice program has been used in the United States for over 30 years and has continued to yield positive results. There is strong evidence that young people stay out of trouble after their Teen Court appearance. “This is cost-effective for our taxpayers, since there are no costs associated with county funds and it saves the state of Georgia on incarcerating youth,” says Poss.

 

Poss looks ahead to more opportunities for youth to participate in Teen Court. “I am working on a Teen Court Youth Summit at Rock Eagle in April for the Georgia Teen Courts to come together and meet for a weekend of training,” says Poss, who is currently trying to raise funds for over 140 youth and directors to participate.

New classes and training begin each August and training will continue each month. Court is held in the evenings on the last Thursday of the month at the Grovetown Courthouse annex. Do you know anyone in the Columbia County School District who is interested in a career in the legal field? If so, it’s not too late to join Teen Court this year. Visit their website for more information and to fill out the electronic online application at www.columbiacounty.org.

Mary Ashton Mills lives in Augusta with her husband and two children. Her work has appeared in Charleston Magazine, The Post and Courier and Augusta Family Magazine.

This article appears in the September 2015 issue of Augusta Family Magazine.
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