Teen court coming to Socorro

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Socorro is getting a teen court, a new option for area teens with troubles, and the Socorro Consolidated School Board heard a presentation about it during the board’s regular meeting Sept. 23.

Kirsten Keller, coordinator for the Socorro County Juvenile Justice Board, introduced Bobbie Sanders, teen court facilitator, who gave a PowerPoint presentation about the project.

Sanders, who also serves as a Municipal Court judge in Truth or Consequences, established the first teen court in New Mexico in 1990. There are now 23 teen courts in the state.

“I’m here because I was very fortunate to get the contract to set up your teen court and establish it, get your agencies together and a protocol and a sentence grid — the whole nine yards to get the program going,” Sanders said.

She said Socorro’s teen court will duplicate the other teen courts throughout the state, which together make up the New Mexico Teen Court Association. She added Socorro would be represented for the first time at the NMTCA board meeting in Alamogordo on Sept. 26 and 27.

Sanders recommended visiting the U.S. Department of Justice website at www.ojjdp.gov/mpg for more information about teen courts. The site describes teen courts as programs designed to divert first-time youth offenders from formal court proceedings to an informal process focused on preventing future delinquency. They are not courts within the judicial branch of government, but are part of a diversion process to keep young people out of juvenile justice proceedings.

Sanders said the teen courts primarily work with the Juvenile Probation Office. They also work with the courts and with schools. She said teen courts now help school districts develop programs to help address some delinquency problems, especially truancy. She said early intervention will be the focus of Socorro’s teen court, including schoolyard-level issues that a district attorney would not consider prosecuting.

Sanders said teen court takes cases of 12- to 17-year-olds who voluntarily admit guilt and agree to the teen court’s sentence, terms and rules.

Board member Dawn Weaver said she had thought teen court was to help resolve issues at school, but Sanders’ presentation indicates the program addresses issues outside school.

Sanders said addressing serious delinquency issues is a requirement for funding; teen court must have the support of the local JPO to qualify for grant funding.

Sanders said there are 14 teen court models, but the one most often utilized is the teen jury with no attorneys and an adult judge with a limited role. She said the jury comprises a panel of five teens, one of whom chairs the panel. All the decisions are made by the teens.

Keller later added that teen juries are provided a sentencing grid to follow.

“So they don’t just make up their own ideas,” Keller said.

Sanders added they have a maximum and a minimum recommendation to follow, and part of the sentence involves serving on the teen court jury in a future case.

Teen court meets after school at the local district court, Sanders said, with parents present.

Sanders said teens referred by municipal and magistrate courts, JPO and the school district have 60 days to complete their sentences. She added some programs can be lengthier, so when that happens she asks for more time. Programs address things like conflict resolution, bullying, life skills and more.

Sanders said the teen court’s objectives include maintaining strong community networks, motivating juveniles to realize their potential, increasing parental involvement in students’ lives and reducing recidivism rates.

“We want them out of the juvenile justice system,” Sanders said.

Sanders said she knows the local judges, and they have been very helpful and supportive of the new teen court.

“You have a very wonderful community,” Sanders said. “Everybody has been more than willing to do whatever it is they can do to help.”