Navigating Justice in Pima County Teen Court

By Ella McCarville/El Inde

Let me call him Elijah. He’s 14 years old so I’ve changed his name to Elijah because he’s a minor.

Last summer, he kept his gaze fixed on his Nike Air Jordans while he waited for Tucson Unified School District officials and the police to open the door to the principal’s office. In his anticipation, fear crept in. It was the beginning of a long August day. Soon, the TUSD safety officer and police officers would come to scorn him, his mother upset and questioning herself as a parent would drive to his high school, stunned by what happened. It became clearer and clearer that things were serious.

Earlier that day, Elijah rode the school bus, socializing, chatting with friends and people who he thought could be friends with one day. Elijah was one of the students on the bus that went to the smaller school in the area. He would watch the bus empty and its doors close but it left a sense of melancholy- less people meant fewer opportunities to connect. 

Elijah is a sociable teenager, who considers himself popular. That day, he noticed a girl from the big high school who he thought might want to attend his smaller high school but as he talked to her it was obvious that she would not make the change.

Although she would not come to his school, he thought he could still be friends with her and joke with her like he did with his friends. After she left the bus, he took a picture of her school and wrote a Snap that was a dark joke to him but would prove to be a serious threat to her. 

“I’m going to shoot your school up,” it read. Just a week before, Elijah and his 12 year old brother had been stuck inside a mall while a shooter opened fire in the parking lot.

Friends on the bus warned Elijah that she had called the police– but he was convinced they were joking too until the officers showed up.

Instead of going through a traditional  juvenile court system approach, Elijah and his parents were offered a diversion program- Pima County Teen Court. As one of many peer-led justice programs where the ideas and approaches come from the teenagers themselves, Teen Court and other restorative justice programs for young people have been attempting to reduce racial disparities and recidivism in the juvenile justice system. Diversion programs such as Teen Court serve as an option to keep youth out of punitive consequences such as courts and detention centers using restorative consequences. As of 2019, for every 100,000 Black youths, 315 were held in a detention facility, followed by 92 for every 100,000 Hispanic youth and 72 for white youth according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

As a mixed-race teenager, Elijah had been raised to be cautious of peer-pressure because he would receive the most backlash from authority figures. 

“I’m really big on because he’s half Black, about how Black kids get treated differently and how his dad and I have tried to raise him to do the right thing and be a good kid,” his mom said, who is white. “I just felt like everything we’d ever taught him had just gone down the drain and he ruined his life forever.”

Although what Elijah did had nothing to do with peer pressure, his father had a different perspective on his son’s identity.

“But I feel that it’s harder. It’s harder on a young man than it is on a young woman, especially with peer pressure, but there was nobody pressuring him. So, you know, I mean, there was nobody that was, it was all him,” Elijah’s dad said.

For Elijah’s family, challenging the charges in court would have been expensive, both in time and money. If he had entered the court system as an adult, he would have faced up to $100,000 in fines and 1 to 2 years of prison time. To their relief, completion of Teen Court would result in Elijah’s misdemeanor being wiped from his record.

Although the Teen Court is a reputable program with an 11% recidivism rate compared to the 80% rate of the traditional juvenile court system, there was something left to be desired by mom. The seamlessness of Elijah’s transition from being scorned at school to going home not long after seemed too easy. 

“I kind of wanted him to be handcuffed just to scare him. Just so he knew how bad this was. But he wasn’t, we all just stayed at [his school] while he talked to the sheriff and he got grounded at the house,” mom said. 

Elijah’s dad on the other hand was more concerned with how the suspension affected his son’s academic life.

“I felt that because he had no other record of violence or being in trouble, it was a long suspension but that was my personal [opinion]. I understood that he needed some sort of punishment for him to miss school because when he was suspended he had no contact with the school really,” Elijah’s dad said. “They would give him some homework but he had no way to know how to do it.”

Elijah didn’t think he would get into that much trouble. He thought everything would become clear once he explained the situation, but he began to see that it was too late. Over time, the idea of the program began to feel less like an easy way out.

The 30 day program is tailored to each teen by a jury and court of their peers. First comes the trial where the Constructive Consequences such as workshops, jury duty and letters of apology are assigned.  Some of the workshops available are “Did you pay for that?” for teenagers who have shoplifted or “Turn down the heat” for teenagers who were involved in fire and fireworks related offenses. 

Youth in the Teen Court program typically get all three types of constructive consequences, but the amount sentenced depends on their peers. Elijah received a sentence of two jury duties and letters of apology, as well as the Self-Improvement Workshop, which aimed to “help youth recognize goals and learn how to accomplish them” according to Teen Court’s Constructive Consequences sheet.

“The process helps him realize being suspended for nine days and not being able to be around his friends. It was just a one-time thing,” mom said. 

As part of Elijah’s requirements for Teen Court, he admitted his guilt, wrote two letters of apology, served as a juror twice and attended two workshops. One letter was addressed to his mother and one to the girl on the bus. 

Although a month had passed since he sent her the Snap, Elijah had mixed feelings about sending her an apology letter. His letter to her was intended half to fulfill the requirement and half as a sincere apology.

Immediately after the incident, Elijah went to SnapChat to see if she was as upset as everyone was making her out to be. He checked her story, not seeing anything abnormal and proceeded to block her.

“I didn’t want to interact with her anymore,” Elijah said.

Elijah still goes to the mall with his friends, and most of his friends at his own school have no idea. Elijah retained his social status, only telling select friends what happened. To his classmates, Elijah had just been on vacation for 11 days.

Although his social life did not suffer, Elijah’s biggest challenge now was raising his grades after his suspension of 11 days. After attending teen court sessions as a juror, he’s seen most sides of the process and began to show an interest in trying to be a lawyer in teen court once he turned 16 and later as a career. Now, more than ever, he had to be more grade-conscious. 

At 14, Elijah was in the beginning stages of exploring his potential legal career. First, he had to graduate high school, then college, (though he seemed unaware there was normally a step in between), followed by graduate law school. 

Pima County Teen Court is one of the many diversion programs across the country for people under the age of 18. Illustration by Ella McCarville.

Although the process of becoming a lawyer is fuzzy for him, Elijah knows lawyers make a lot of money. His favorite, charismatic fictional lawyer, Saul Goodman, from “Breaking Bad” and “Better Call Saul” have a lot to do with this perception.

On television, Goodman defends criminals using questionable tactics, while becoming one himself. 

Elijah was not sure what Goodman’s morals were, but his impression of the fictional character remained positive. 

“He’s a cool person. He’s very joyful,” Elijah said.

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