Teen court, a pretrial intervention program designed to keep youths ages 10 to 17 out of the criminal justice system while still holding them accountable for their actions through a jury of their peers, will open in North Port as soon as March.
After a presentation by teen volunteers and adults who supervise the program, the North Port City Commission on Tuesday night unanimously agreed to let teen court case managers and counselors use meeting and office space in City Hall and host monthly teen court trials in commission chambers.
“I’ve seen people my age come through and I’ve talked to them and helped them,” said Victoria Pelfry, a teen court attorney who lives in North Port and attends Lemon Bay High School. “Generally they tell me how thankful they are for teen court and how much their life would be different if teen court hadn’t stepped in to help them.”
Pelfry said many youths she keeps in contact with tell her they would come back and volunteer but don’t have the transportation to get to the main courthouse in downtown Sarasota or the Robert L. Anderson Administration Center in Venice, where sessions are held.
She was one of four volunteers who implored the commission to find space for North Port youths in need to access teen court’s services in their backyard.
Since July 2016, the West Villages Improvement District has made space for case manager Shaun Slapp to meet youths in an office, but that, too, is a stretch for some.
Mary Dougherty, board president of Teen Court of Sarasota Inc., and a North Port resident since 1979, started the presentation by noting that the largest city with the youngest demographic in Sarasota County needed a local space for youths.
“It’s important that they take place in an official government setting, and that the young people learn to show the respect in that setting for the process,” she later added.
Heather Todd is executive director for the program, which opened in 1988 in north Sarasota County and expanded to South County in 1992.
Teen court, which drug tests each client, also offers counseling and substance abuse classes as well as a program for “Counseling, Opportunity Ownership, Problem-Solving,” or COOP for short.
More about the program can be found at sarasotateencourt.org.
Over the past four years the program has helped a declining number of North Port youth — 96 in 2014, followed by 71 in 2015, 61 in 2016, and 41 last year. Todd attributed that to the inaccessibility of the South County location.
“What that says to me is we need the services in the North Port families’ backyard,” Todd told the commission.
Overall, the program helped about 400 youths in 2017, with 27 percent of the clients coming from Osprey south to Englewood and Port Charlotte.
Historically, only 5 percent of the youths who go through teen court become repeat offender.
In addition to serving those youths, teen court law-related programs reached another 4,000 students countywide, Todd said.
Records from the proceedings are outside of the juvenile justice system, so — in theory — no formal records may haunt the participants in the future.
Teen court receives cases from local law enforcement for civil citation as well as the state Department of Juvenile Justice, the State Attorney, local schools and parents.
Juveniles plead their case and pledge to make amends before a student-run court of their peers.
“The consequences given to them by peers include community service hours, jury duty sessions, apology letters, essays and reports,” Todd said.
North Port High School student Nathan Clemens, one of the teen court attorneys, later added that expansion of the program to North Port “will allow their cases to be heard by a true jury of their peers, by actual North Port residents.”
Some former clients give back by becoming teen court volunteers, who are eligible for the teen court scholarship program, which awarded more than $10,000 to graduating seniors last year.
Commissioners needed little prodding to endorse the program.
Mayor Vanessa Carusone has worked with the program in the past, as has former City Commissioner Joan Morgan, who spoke in favor of teen court during public comment.
“This is not a show. This is something that’s real and important and counseling is important and counseling is part of it,” Morgan said.
Todd said Wednesday that she’s hoping to hold court once a month in North Port, while counseling and intake sessions will start at North Port City Hall as soon as logistics are worked out and space is made available.
Carusone noted that those intake sessions can be almost as valuable as the court sessions, because that’s where counselors can find out if a youth is suicidal, or abused at home, or homeless and living in the woods and they can get help without a permanent record that could impact their future.
“That’s what the city of North Port is about,” she added. “Providing a future for our children.”
By Earle Kimel - Herald Tribune Staff Writer
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