Utah Teen Courts Look to Expand in Scope

Utah’s popular youth court system may be getting larger in scope. The state would like to expand its teen court system so that it encompasses the same offenses as teen courts in neighboring Colorado.

Utah’s 41 youth courts presently rule on minor offenses like graffiti and truancy. The state would like to add more serious juvenile crimes – like underage drinking – to the teen court repertoire. The plan’s proponents believe that teen courts would be as effective in curtailing underage drinking in Utah as they are in Colorado.

Colorado’s youth court system has been successful in providing justice to first-time youth offenders. The state offers these offenders a choice: Proceed through the traditional juvenile court system, or plead guilty and face a jury of their peers in youth court. The choice is deceptively difficult – facing the judgment of their peers is often worse for teenagers than appearing before an adult judge.

In fact, Colorado’s teen courts often hand down sentences harsher than those in traditional juvenile court, according to Woodland Park, Colorado, teen court coordinator Suzanne Leclercq. A typical teen court sentence may include community service, jury duty, and writing letters of apology to victims of the crime. After offenders have served their sentences, their crimes are erased from their records.

Leclercq claims that 95 percent of offenders that go through Colorado’s teen court system never commit another crime. In the event that they do, however, offenders do not get to choose between teen court or traditional juvenile court – they must be tried through conventional channels and previous convictions in teen court will be tacked back on their record.

If expanded, Utah’s youth court system would be an even bigger asset to communities across the state.

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