Jessica Hernstadt was excited to move to Marco Island when her husband, Roger, accepted a position with the City. After all, Marco Island is not only set in an idyllic location, it offers a sense of community and is known for having great schools and being a nice place to raise a family. It’s the perfect setting for the parents of a teenage son. As an attorney by profession, Jessica still works with a number of private clients throughout Florida. She works in probate, wills, trust and real estate. However, like many who move to this area, being a ‘little’ involved just isn’t enough. Through conversations with local attorney, Samantha Morris, Jessica heard about volunteer opportunities with Teen Court.
Wednesday evenings, Jessica uses her professional expertise as an attorney to be a ‘judge’ for Collier County’s Teen Court. Teen Court, under the auspices of Courts Administration, began in 1999 and is part of a bigger Diversion Programs system. It offers first time juvenile offenders an opportunity to keep a conviction off their record. The program is just one of several Diversion Programs offered in Collier County.
Teen Court is just that, a court run by teens, for teens. High school students run the courts, they take on the roles of attorneys, bailiffs, clerks, and jurors. Jessica presides as a volunteer, making sure court runs smoothly. The decision of the jury (within guidelines) determines what sanctions the defendants have to complete; if the defendant is successful, the case is dropped. Jessica comments, “Punishments range from writing an essay, it may contain an element of reading, completing a workbook, or community service hours. Each defendant has admitted guilt, it is a matter of sentencing and following up administratively to be sure the sentence is completed.”
The Teen Court program is a win-win situation. It benefits not only the defendants, but also the teen volunteers, the courts, and the community. The goal is to interrupt patterns of criminal behavior by promoting positive feelings of self-esteem, motivation, self-improvement, and developing healthy attitude towards authority. Using positive peer pressure, it encourages at-risk youths to make informed and positive choices that affect their lives now and in the future.
Jessica has seen the effects first hand. “A young female defendant came in, she was tough. After a few minutes on the stand answering questions, she began to cry. Hearing their stories can be emotional. There are times I literally bitemy tongue in order to maintain composure.”
Department of Juvenile Justice first determines if an offender qualifies to do a Diversion Program and then the State Attorney determines which Diversion Program is suitable. They’re usually first time offenders, up to third degree felonies. The defendant is required to attend his/her Teen Court trial with a parent or legal guardian. They have to complete the sanctions given to them by the jury.
Interestingly, one of the requirements for defendants who have completed the program is jury duty. The defendant would have to come back 1-3 additional evenings and sit on the jury and listen and help determine other defendant’s sanctions. The defendant is also given a class he or she must attend, or in some circumstances, comply with special instructions by the state which may require an evaluation and follow counseling recommendations.
Out of all the Diversion Programs, Teen Court has the highest success rate. According to Carol Fritsch, the Teen Court Coordinator, only about 10% do not complete the sanctions and have to be sent back to Juvenile Court.
Jessica commented, “It is an amazing program which has a positive impact on young lives. There is something about teens being judged by their peers. The kids handle it all, they take their roles seriously and they’re prepared and do an excellent job. I’m so impressed with their attitude and the work they perform.”
Jessica adds, “The one thing we need is MORE volunteers!” In fact, according to Carol, it takes a minimum of 48 volunteers to make each session work: three judges (adults), twelve attorneys (students), three clerks, six bailiffs, three adult volunteers and twenty-one jurors. Teen court follows the school district calendar, hearing six cases per session, approximately 150 cases per year.
Adult or teen, volunteers get a lot out of the program. A few high school volunteers are now adult volunteers for the program, including three attorneys who sit as teen court judges. Several have worked in the clerk’s office. High school volunteers may want to improve their public speaking skills, put it on a college application, learn how a real court operates, or to earn community service hours. Not all volunteers seek a career in law. Schools have been actively promoting teen court, and donations to the program have provided for three $1,000 scholarships in the past two years.
Jessica finds the program to be very rewarding. If you’re interested in becoming a volunteer, contact Carol Fritsch, Teen Court Coordinator, 239-252-2756.