STATE OF OPPORTUNITY. Can Kids in Michigan Get Ahead?
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This special reporting project wrapped up in May 2017. Read more.

A Detroit diversion program gives teen offenders a second chance at a clean record

Jennifer Guerra
Michigan Radio

This is a story about second chances.

When a teen commits a crime it goes on their permanent record, which can lead to all kinds of disadvantages down the road. When they go to apply for a job, for example, they’ll have to admit they broke the law. But a diversion program out of Wayne County gives some low-level, first-time offenders a way to admit their guilt and keep their record clean at the same time. 

Let’s meet the defendant

Chloe (not her real name) was with her friend at J.C. Penney. Her friend stole a bunch of stuff while they were there; Chloe stole a $30 bracelet. They both got caught before they could run out of the store.

Since shoplifting is a misdemeanor and because this is Chloe’s first ever run-in with the law, she’s decided to take her case to Teen Court. This particular teen court is affiliated with the Detroit Public School district. But there are dozens of teen courts around the state and more than 1,000 across the country.

In order for teen court to work, the defendant has to admit up front that she broke the law. Then it’s up to a group of high school students – a literal jury of her peers – to come up with an appropriate sentence.

"Hopefully they teach me something and hopefully they learn from my mistakes and stuff" says Chloe. "And I hope I leave there feeling relieved that I finally got to talk about it."

Let's meet the "judge"

Overseeing Chloe's case at teen court is Danton Wilson, an attorney with the Wayne County Prosecutor's Office, Juvenile Division. Wilson isn't a judge per se, he just "plays" one in teen court. 

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
Attorney Danton Wilson "plays" a judge in the Detroit Public School system's Teen Court program

To make himself look more judge-like, Wilson’s wears his son’s black high school graduation gown. He sits at the front of the courtroom, which is really a social studies classroom at Western International High School. 

Let's meet the jury

The jurors in this teen court program are 9th graders in Mike Cruz's social studies class, and they take their job very seriously. Here's a sample of some of the questions they asked Chloe:

How much was the item? Why did you do it? Did your friend have a car, or did someone drop you off? Did you have peer pressure from your friend to steal it? Did you think about the consequences before you did it? 

Credit Jennifer Guerra / Michigan Radio
Michigan Radio
The forewoman reads the jury's sentence, which includes letters of apology and community service.

And they don’t just limit their questions to the shoplifting incident. They get personal. Really personal. The jurors ask about Chloe’s home life. They learn she doesn’t have a great relationship with her mom, so she lives with her grandma. She likes school but struggles with geometry, she wants to be a child psychologist, and yes, she’s tried alcohol before but never drugs.

After about 20 minutes of questioning and 5 minutes of deliberation, the jury forewoman reads the sentence: Chloe has to have no contact with the offending friend for a month; apologize to her Grandmother; write a letter of apology to J.C. Penney; do 10 hours of community service; and get a math tutor to help her with geometry.

Ok, so we know what Teen Court looks like...does it work? 

Community service and letters of apology are the two most common sanctions in teen courts. It seems to work. A study by the non-profit Urban Institute found that those who went through teen court were significantly less likely to break the law again compared to those who went the juvenile court route.

Social studies teacher Mike Cruz leads the teen court class at Western High School in Detroit. He says it’s not just the defendant who gets something out of the experience; the students on the jury do, too:

"As far as I could be a judge, I could be a lawyer," explains Cruz. "If you never met a lawyer, you grow up thinking - I grew up like that - you grow up thinking that’s for other people. So you meet a prosecuting attorney you see him on a regular basis, just him being here and talking to them kind of breaks that wall down."

All the kids involved get a lesson in consequences, and second chances -- before they make the kind of mistake that could put them on the wrong path into adulthood.

Jennifer is a reporter with Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project. She previously covered arts and culture for the station, and worked as a producer for WFUV in the Bronx.