More than 40 high school seniors took an oath Monday night as they were sworn in as the 20th Judicial District's fourth group of Teen Court participants since the program was reinstated.
Teen Court proceedings consist of trained teens acting as prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, bailiff, clerk and jury and are presided by Judge Troy B. Braswell Jr. The teens will hear actual cases of juveniles charged with violating state laws.
For the first time ever, high school seniors at South Side Bee Branch in Van Buren County were offered applications to join the Teen Court team. This year's class includes 42 high school seniors from both Faulkner and Van Buren counties. Four of those students -- Whitney Barnum, Maci Guinn, Kolby Strickland and Kaylee Cossey -- are South Side Bee Branch students.
Amy Wilson, who is the guidance counselor at South Side Bee Branch, said she is excited for the students at her school to be able to take part in this opportunity "that will really help them get to the root of what others are going through."
Being able to participate in the Teen Court program was a big step for Van Buren County students, she said.
"Our students have not gotten to do this before," Wilson said. "It's a great opportunity for them to see what other kids go through, because sometimes we can get stuck in our own little bubbles."
One of the students accepted from South Side Bee Branch said he is thrilled to serve the community as a Teen Court participant, adding that he plans to one day join the military or become a law enforcement officer.
"I'm excited to see what people have to go through and not just hear stories about court but actually see live cases," Strickland said, noting he also is interested to see "what judges go through every day."
Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Rhonda Wood thanked each student before reminding them of the responsibilities they would be taking on as the 2019 Teen Court class. She challenged the group before her not to make excuses for their peers, but to work toward making a difference.
Also, before swearing in the 42 high school seniors, she asked them to hold themselves accountable and in a positive light while serving on the Teen Court panel and also at school.
Wood said she wishes the Teen Court program was used more often across the state, but that she is proud to know it is being included now in five Arkansas districts.
As a state supreme court justice during the recent executions, Wood said she noticed each man that was sentenced to death featured qualities that would have made him eligible to be tried in Teen Court during his juvenile years. Before each execution, justices reviewed each man's file, which included their background and criminal history.
“As I read those files, and we read a lot of social history, we read a lot of their psychiatric backgrounds, what hit me when I read each of those men’s backgrounds is that those men were the juveniles that I saw in Juvenile Court,” she said. “They were not the same people, I did not personally know them, but they were the same young men that I saw day in and day out Juvenile Court.”
When choosing which at-risk youth will go before the Teen Court, administrators review the students' truancy history, number of family members who have been incarcerated, whether their parents finished high school or earned a GED, past court or foster care history along with their fit on the poverty spectrum.
Before newly-elected 20th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Carol Crews spoke to Monday's group, Braswell talked about the good programs like Teen Court has brought the community.
Reinstating Teen Court was in correlation to instating a risk assessment program in the 20th Judicial District's juvenile court system. The 20th Judicial District includes Faulkner, Searcy and Van Buren counties.
The risk assessment program, Braswell said, has proven itself effective.
"I can tell you now, through our first five years, we've seen a 52 percent reduction in the number of kids that have gone into the Juvenile Detention Center," he said. "At the same time, we've seen a reduction in cases filed by the prosecuting attorney's office by 33 percent. Why does that matter? It means it's not about being soft, it's about being smart ... that when you empower kids and give them opportunities to be on the right track, they don't come back to court. They stay in the community, and they're successful."
Since instating the risk assessment program five years ago, the district has also seen a 42 percent reduction in youth being sentenced to the Division of Youth Services, the state's most secure confinement center for juveniles.
The numbers alone, show an improvement that affects more than caseloads, but also uplifts area families, Braswell said.
"These are real kids; they're not just numbers," he said. "These are real families that are staying together in the community because they're given opportunities."
Crews encouraged the group to continue working to make a difference locally and said she was proud of each student present.