For the past 25 years, the City of Irving Teen Court program has helped area youth maintain clear records while fostering active engagement in the judicial system. The program, which operates through the Municipal Court, launched in 1992 under the guidance of Jean Griffin and Martha Tucker. The goal of the program was to offer teens an alternative sentencing option so they could make restitution for their mistakes, rather than being convicted and hindering their chances of college acceptance or career advancement.Today, the program is run by Jennifer Bozorgnia, Teen Court coordinator, and Rachel Castro, Teen Court assistant. While much has changed during the past 25 years, the passion for the program and the high completion rate have helped the program remain a fixture in the community.
Students ages 10 to 17 who are issued a Class C misdemeanor citation for offenses such as fighting, drug paraphernalia, theft, curfew violations or traffic violations may have the option to participate in the Teen Court program.Instead of paying a fine, the student is sentenced to community service that is completed at agencies throughout Irving. The judge may order the student to complete additional requirements. For example, a life skills class relating to the student’s offense may be required to gain a better understanding of the consequences of their actions. To promote academic advancement, the student also may be required to turn in proof of tutoring in a subject they struggle with or passing grades for the next term. This allows for students to grow and understand how choices affect their future.The continuous, year-round program touts its encouragement of accountability for the students. While parents or legal guardians are kept informed of the program, the responsibility to participate and finish is placed on the student. By completing the program, the students are able to gain a sense of accomplishment at doing their part to restore a positive relationship between themselves and the community, while keeping their violations from affecting their records.
Not all students who participate have been issued a citation. The program also welcomes students and adult volunteers to serve on court nights and help the program operate like clockwork. Students may be looking to gain volunteer hours for school credit or may be interested in pursuing a career in journalism, public speaking or criminal justice. Adult volunteers earn hours as well, but many join to stay connected to the community and help others through service.Once a month on Tuesday evenings, as many as five courtrooms open for volunteers to participate in various staff positions. Some evenings, the court will hear 30 to 40 cases, including traditional court sessions for higher-class offenses, and master juries, which oversee traffic and minor offenses. Previous experience is not necessary to participate as a volunteer. For every position, each student and adult are given the training necessary to serve in those roles through an orientation process. The student volunteers fill positions such as bailiff, clerk or juror, and even serve as attorneys in the courtrooms. Teen Court administrators say the individual growth they see can be astounding. Some students will come into the courtroom shy or timid and, even after just a year of volunteering, will command the room with their presence and courtroom performance.The judges and attorney advisers who oversee the courtrooms are the only positions that have a prerequisite to serve. Participants must be practicing attorneys in the community, a requirement that ensures the process remains fair, neutral and impartial. Other adult volunteers serve in supervisory roles, maintaining order during court sessions. Some check in students when they arrive for a case, while others administer the results of the case — discussing the court’s decision, what requirements the defendant must follow and when cases should be completed. Municipal Court staff members also are cross-trained to step in and help.The monthly efforts of volunteers does not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Teen Court holds an annual appreciation dinner each spring to show gratitude toward its volunteers. This gives the program the opportunity to highlight the service of each youth and adult who dedicates time to the Irving Teen Court. Additionally, certain volunteers are recognized for individual achievements during the year, including an award named for the program’s founder, which is the highest honor that can be earned.The program is a successful and seamless operation, thanks in large part to the involvement and support of people in the community. The Irving Public Library, Parks and Recreation Department, Irving Cares and YMCA also support the program by allowing students to complete their community service requirements at specific locations. Without these agencies, Teen Court would fail to accomplish its mission of community restoration and faith in youth offenders.
Teen Court teaches long-lasting life lessons, as evidenced by the many students who have come back as volunteers after having gone through the program. Often, teens and adults have a negative reaction to the judicial system. Teen Court is an avenue to promote respect and positive attitudes toward authority figures. The program offers hope that the interactions teens have with the court staff and volunteers will encourage that change in perspective. It also reminds students that everyone makes mistakes, and that Teen Court is an opportunity to avoid seeing those poor choices permanently etched on their record.For more information on the program, call (972) 721-3601 or visit City of Irving's Teen Court page. View ICTN’s latest coverage of the Teen Court.