Teen courts (also known as peer courts) are a specialised intervention that divert young people from the formal court system. Teen courts tend to be used for first time, less serious, non-violent offenders who are viewed as having a low risk of re-offending. Participation is voluntary, meaning that a young person can withdraw at any time, but will then be diverted back to the traditional justice system. A defining feature of a teen court is that other young people serve as at least some of the court personnel, such as the lawyer, judge or jury. The roles filled by young people will vary according to the model of teen court used.Most teen courts require the young person to admit guilt in order to participate. So, unlike the formal system, court proceedings are not focused on establishing guilt or innocence but rather on assigning constructive sentences that encourage them to accept responsibility for their actions while repairing harm to the community. Sentences typically include community service, apology letters to victims or educational workshops. They may also include a requirement to serve on a jury of a future teen court or a referral to a community based resource such as tutoring or mentoring. When a young person successfully completes the programme, the offence for which they are referred is erased from their criminal record. Note that teen courts are different to youth courts which are a specialist type of Magistrates’ court that is routinely used in the UK to deal with criminal cases against children.The narrative is based on one meta-analytic review covering 14 studies and focuses on the effect of teen courts on reoffending. All the primary studies in the meta-analysis were carried out in the United States. Additional Toolkit narratives that might be of interest are 'Trying youths as adults' and 'Police led diversion models for young offenders'.
There is some evidence to suggest that teen courts have increased or reduced reoffending, but overall, they have not had a statistically significant effect on reoffending.
The Review was based on 14 studies contributing 18 effect sizes which were divided into two separate meta-analysis: one that compared young people who completed teen court to those who were formally processed (N=11 studies) and another that compared them with those who were processed through other types of diversion programmes, for example, community service (N=7 studies). In both cases, teen court was found to be no more effective at reducing reoffending than the alternative mechanism.
The Review examined potential effect size moderators. It found that length of follow-up was an important moderator; short follow-up periods of less than 12 months were related to strong and positive effects while longer follow-up periods of 12 months or more were related to negative effects. This suggests that while teen courts may be effective at reducing reoffending in the short term, these effects do not appear to last more than a year. The Review also reported that studies published in 2004 or earlier were related to stronger positive effects than those published in 2005 or after, indicating that older programs demonstrate significantly stronger effects than those published more recently.
The Review was sufficiently systematic that most forms of bias that could influence the conclusions can be ruled out.
The evidence is taken from a meta-analytic review which demonstrated a high quality design in terms of having a transparent and well-designed search strategy, valid statistical analysis, sufficient assessment of publication bias and consideration of the risk of bias in the analysis and the influence of statistical outliers.
While the mechanisms for how teen courts work were not empirically tested, the authors noted that they are assumed to reduce reoffending by:
However, the review authors note that the findings do not support the expectation that teen courts are a more effective alternative to reducing reoffending and consider the following reasons:
The review examined the effect of participant-level characteristics, such as gender or ethnicity, and found that they were not significantly associated with more positive (or negative) effects. However it did note that four of the five primary studies that demonstrated statistically significant reductions in reoffending were those that included at least some repeat offenders. While not conclusive, these findings suggest that teen courts might be more effective at reducing recidivism among (low risk) repeat offenders, and that targeting first-time offenders may be ineffective, as one would not reasonably expect these young people to reoffend in the first place.
The Review gave no account of how the intervention was implemented, nor of any implementation challenges encountered by the primary studies.
The Review did not detail the costs of teen courts, and no formal economic analysis was provided. The authors did note however that as teen courts are primarily run by volunteers, the operating costs of the intervention are low when compared to the formal court system.
Overall, the Review found that teen courts are no more effective at reducing reoffending among young people than formal processing or other diversion programmes. However it was also found to be no worse. Teen courts are expected to reduce reoffending by diverting young people at low risk of reoffending from the formal court process, avoiding the potential for negative labelling and focusing instead on reparation and the positive influence of their pro-social peers. There was some evidence to suggest that teen courts might be more effective for certain types of offenders, for example, repeat offenders. Further studies are needed to determine if teen courts are more effective for populations with certain individual or criminogenic characteristics, or whether they can demonstrate other non-crime benefits. These could include: high levels of satisfaction among parents and young people, improvement in participants’ social and psychological behaviours, and cost effectiveness, to fully consider whether they may be a justifiable and worthy diversion programme for young people.
Review: Bouchard, J., and Wong, J. (2017), A Jury of their peers: A meta-analysis of the effects of teen court on criminal recidivism. Journal of Youth and Adolescence. April 2017This narrative was written by the College of Policing. ESRC Grant title: 'University Consortium for Evidence-Based Crime Reduction'. Grant Ref: ES/L007223/1.Uploaded 17/11/2020