When Jamie Lee Willocks was a teenager, she brought a cellphone with her to band class, which was not allowed. She received a text message from her mother, and the band director heard it.
Willocks fessed up and paid the price with an in-school suspension. “I got in so much trouble and I did nothing in ISS,” she remembers.
When Willocks, now the coordinator of Buncombe County’s Teen Court, tells those referred to the program about her one and only time getting in trouble, they are not impressed. “Some kids roll their eyes so hard at me — ‘That’s all you ever did?’” she recalls good-naturedly.
An initiative of the nonprofit Buncombe Alternatives, Teen Court is funded by Buncombe County’s Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, itself a project of the N.C. Department of Public Safety. The program seeks to “make referrals for court-involved or at-risk kids to send them to programs as opposed to sending them to [adult] court,” says Sylvia Clement, chief court counselor for Juvenile Justice in Superior Court District 28, which covers Buncombe County.
Teen Court holds hearings for dozens of Buncombe County juveniles each year, serving 47 clients in both 2019 and 2020. The program has continued through the COVID-19 pandemic, operating remotely and at lower volumes. (So far this year, four teens have been diverted to Teen Court out of 100 referred to Juvenile Court Services.)
While a virtual option remains available, the court returned to in-person hearings at the Buncombe County Courthouse Oct. 25.
Teens in the Buncombe County education system may end up in Teen Court for breaking school rules, as well as for committing Class 1, 2 and 3 misdemeanors under state law. Willocks says the most common infractions recently have been possession of alcohol, vaping devices or marijuana; Clement says truancy was a frequent reason for referral during the 2020-21 school year.
Teens can be referred to Juvenile Justice in several ways, including by a school resource officer, social worker (typically when truancy is involved), parent or citizen, explains Clement. An intake counselor reviews the complaint and reaches out to the teen’s family to make an appointment for meeting with the child and a guardian. Based on that review, the counselor either reviews the case for Juvenile Court, diverts it to Teen Court or closes the clase.
Teen Court hearings take place the second and fourth Mondays of every month at 5 p.m. in two courtrooms on the fourth floor of the Buncombe County Courthouse. Each hearing lasts 45-90 minutes, and one or two hearings usually occur per evening. The program “has a mock court structure, but it’s not like being sent to Juvenile Court,” Clement says. About 12 student volunteers between 11 and 17 years old participate in each hearing as jurors, attorneys and a judge; proceedings are confidential and can’t be discussed at school or on social media.
Willocks explains to participants that the program “is not supposed to be punitive, but restorative.” Students are used to a traditional punishment-based justice system, she says, but in Teen Court, they are encouraged to consider how to repair the harm caused by an offense.
Prior to the pandemic, the peer jury could sentence teens to restorative sanctions, such as completing up to 20 hours of community service at MANNA FoodBank, Animal Haven of Asheville, community gardens or other nonprofits. Due to COVID-19, teens have been required to complete at-home projects, like writing thank-you letters to workers and residents at nursing homes and apology letters for their offenses.
Students who are referred to Teen Court are also required to fill out interactive journals throughout the restorative justice process, allowing Buncombe Alternatives to assess their growth and change.
Parents are generally supportive of the Teen Court process, Willocks says, adding that they seem to appreciate the peer-to-peer aspect. “They want [their kids] to learn from their mistakes and have other teenagers on their side,” she explains.
Hannah Legerton, who coordinates the Juvenile Crime Prevention Council for Buncombe’s Justice Services department, says that over the past decade, North Carolina has tried to help teens learn accountability in different ways than traditional detention and commitment. “When you treat young people in developmentally appropriate ways, providing the supports that they need and the opportunities to repair harm, we get better outcomes, and it can lead to better safety and opportunities for our young people and our communities as a whole,” she says.
‘This is not fun’
Juvenile courts in North Carolina work with young people ages 6-17. “The Price of Poverty in North Carolina’s Juvenile Justice System,” a report produced by the N.C. Poverty Research Fund at the UNC School of Law, notes that the juvenile justice system can create challenges for low-income families — particularly for families of color, given that one in three Black or Latino youths in the state are low-income.
North Carolina’s juvenile courts can impose fees on parents or guardians, including court-appointed lawyer fees, fines or restitution. “One in seven households in North Carolina, and one in five Black and Latinx households, have zero or negative net worth; they have no savings to draw on when faced with an extra expense,” the report explains. “Their financial precariousness compromises their ability to comply with court orders.”
Willocks previously worked as a teacher and transitioned careers because she believed justice-involved teens and their families needed better help. “To see what the court system is capable of doing to a family and to see what the court system is capable of doing for a family — and understanding there is a big difference — it’s really opened my eyes to how helpful our systems can be if they’re used correctly,” she says.
Teen Court intentionally takes place after-hours at the courthouse so participants can experience going there and following the courthouse dress code. “You treat it as if it was a real court,” Willocks says. “When you get a taste of what real court could be like as a 13-, 14-, 15-year-old, you’re like, ‘Oh, wow, this is serious. … Wow, this is a lot. This is not fun.’”
The program does not work for everyone, Willocks acknowledges; some teens reoffend. But many are receptive to the idea of getting a “fresh start,” especially if their involvement with Juvenile Justice is over an accident or “a horrible dare,” she continues.
“For the students it does work for, it’s an amazing change to watch the dynamic go from, ‘Everyone here is against me,’ to ‘Everyone here is working together with me,’” she says.
Every teen who has a hearing is required to come back and do jury duty for another offender’s hearing. The idea is for the kids to see the process from the other side, Willocks says. And occasionally, a Teen Court defendant becomes a Teen Court volunteer.
“When a client chooses of their own volition to continue to participate as a juror, it shows me they … believe in what’s happening,” Willocks says. “It makes me feel so proud.”