The Star's coverage last month of a report revealing that "youth confinement has decreased nationwide in the last 15 years, and that Arizona has seen it drop the most" correctly attributed these results to an actual decrease in juvenile crime and concurrent reform measures implemented by the Pima County Juvenile Court Center.
However, credit should also be given to outstanding community-based efforts like the Pima County Teen Court, which has made a tremendous contribution over the past 18 years to reducing repeat juvenile crimes in Pima County.
The Pima County Teen Court is an extremely cost-effective, peer-led diversion program that was developed in 1995 by and for youths. It was created through a collaboration among law enforcement and community youth-serving institutions that was focused on finding new and creative solutions to the rising rate of youth crime. Founding partners include the Pima Prevention Partnership, Pima County Juvenile Court, Pima County Attorney's Office, Tucson Police Department, Pima County Sheriff's Department and numerous other community organizations.
The theory behind Teen Court is that youths 12 to 17 who are first-, second- or third-time misdemeanor offenders can avoid having a criminal conviction by admitting responsibility for their offense and agreeing to have their sentences determined by their peers.
Instead of simply putting these young people with problems behind bars, young offenders get the help they need through sentencing options focused on restorative justice.
There are many sentencing options available to the teen juries, which are tailored to the offense. Specific options are available for crimes including assaults, substance abuse, arson, shoplifting, theft and possession of marijuana or alcohol. All Teen Court defendants must complete the four-hour Teen Court Basic Training workshop with their parents. Juvenile rights and responsibilities, family communication and family rule-making are part of the interactive learning - all building blocks for family stability.
While Teen Court is presided over by a voluntary adult judge or legal professional, the prosecutor, defense attorney, jurors and bailiffs are all teenagers who have volunteered or who have been through the diversion program themselves.
Teen Court promotes civic responsibility and leadership skills for all participants. In addition to performing all courtroom roles, volunteers are encouraged to participate in the Teen Court Bar Association meeting monthly to assess the program's success, reflect on their service and celebrate achievements.
Year after year, the evidence shows that Teen Court works in reducing repeat juvenile crime and in fostering personal responsibility.
To date, Teen Court has conducted sentencing hearings for more than 6,300 youths and families. Its success rate for reducing recidivism outpaces every other strategy used in reducing juvenile crime in Pima County.
Recent 2012 evaluation data demonstrate that 96 percent of youths who complete Teen Court are 50 percent less likely to commit another crime than their peers who don't complete the program. Prepost surveys illustrate that 96 percent of parents and 94 percent of teens showed an increase in knowledge of juvenile laws, and 86 percent of parents and 88 percent of teens indicated that their participation improved family communication.
In addition, with more than 1,200 youths volunteering each year to make Teen Court work, it is the least-expensive diversion program that generates the best results year after year.
The cost of the program is low, less than $500 per referral, and the program continuously generates excellent results.
The Pima County Teen Court is just one way that community-based efforts are making a difference for youths. It is important that residents of Pima County are aware of the outstanding collaboration underway between the public and private sectors in areas such as juvenile justice, and that they are encouraged to participate in community efforts to make a difference.
In this economic environment, Teen Court also stands as a model of public-private partnership, funded for the past 18 years through public dollars from the Arizona Superior Court in Pima County, city of Tucson, and Pima County's Community Development Block Grant and outside agency funds; and private funds from the John M. Simpson Foundation, State Farm Foundation, Phoenix Suns Charities, the Martin & Hildegard Gluck Foundation and United Way/ECAP.
We invite all citizens, youths and adults, to learn more about the Pima County Teen Court program, to volunteer and to donate and support its highly effective efforts. More information is at www.thepartnership.us
Claire E. Scheuren is deputy director of the Pima Prevention Partnership.