First Posted: 11/16/2011

If Robeson County could figure out a way to steer juvenile criminals away from graduating to adult criminals and toward the classroom or an honest living, then we could take a big bite from our crippling crime rate.

Teen Court, as you might know now from reading staff writer’s Teddy Kulmala’s story in Saturday’s The Robesonian, is poised to begin the enormous task of making inroads in those positive directions.

You probably know what Teen Court is, but if not, it’s as it sounds like. First-time offenders, ages 11 to 17, charged with non-violent crimes, are plucked from the juvenile court system and dropped into Teen Court on the condition that they admit their guilt. Their reward is a half-hour trial before a real judge and other youths who have similarly drifted in the wrong direction — and a lighter sentence, probably a mix of restitution and community service, an apology, maybe some counseling. Defendants in Teen Court are also asked to move over a seat, into the jury, for future trials, where they get another view of juvenile crime.

The goal is a less-harsh introduction into the court system, one designed to push them back onto a more positive path. An added bonus is money saved and the unclogging of the juvenile court system.

The need in Robeson County is plain: According to the North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence, our county ranks No. 1 in North Carolina in juvenile crime, and our youths are four times more likely to commit a homicide than their peers across the state. None of this should come as a surprise as we have way too many children in this county who aren’t the beneficiaries of proper parenting. Adult criminals are no more than juvenile delinquents who have gotten older — and become more brazen and accomplished at terrorizing their communities.

Teen Court was tried once in this county, but went dormant because of a lack of funding. Version 2.0, which is being funded by a grant from through by the Centers for Disease Control and administered by the North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence, will debut next week, with plans for a single session each week that will dispose of a handful of cases. There is already talk of expanding the program, but that will hinge on funding, which will pivot off Teen Court’s efficacy.

It will probably take a few years to track the local graduates of Teen Court to see if they indeed got the message when it was wrapped in a bow instead of delivered with a fist, but we are confident the information already exists elsewhere that shows Teen Court does indeed work.