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Teen Court offers several benefits

by | Apr 27, 2022 | Latest

A ticket for most adults may mean a fine or a defensive driving course, but for area teens, it could mean a chance to participate in Teen Court.

Wylie’s Teen Court program provides students, not just from Wylie but the surrounding areas as well, an opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system. Volunteers in the program gain valuable court experience while serving as a teen juror, prosecuting attorney and defense attorney.
Alex Ocanas, juvenile case manager for the Wylie Municipal Court, oversees the Teen Court program. 

It is a unique special program authorized by the Texas Legislature, said Ocanas, and allows any juvenile who receives a Class C Misdemeanor to choose to have their case heard through the Teen Court program. 

“Essentially, they will have to come to court, enter their plea before the judge of no contest or guilty, and then they will be referred to reappear at Teen Court,” Ocanas said. “When they come back to Teen Court, they will be represented by a teen attorney, then there will be another teen attorney for the prosecution and then there will be a jury of teens.”

There will be a volunteer attorney who oversees the case — typically Associate Judge Ashley McSwain. The teen attorneys will then argue their cases to have the sentencing decided by jurors.
“The state will fight for the harsher community service punishment,” Ocanas said. “They can ask for them to do a driver safety course or write an essay.”
Ocanas said the defense will then present their argument as to why the defendant should have a lower punishment. 

After both sides conclude their arguments, the teen jurors will then decide on a final sentence, which must be approved by the judge. 

Jurors follow a discipline grid, which details the minimum and maximum sentences for various violations. 

“It has the terms for community service hours,” Ocanas said. “So, say a curfew violation, it will require less community service than a speeding violation. The worse the offense, the higher the sentence.” 

When defendants sign up for Teen Court, the grid gives them an idea of what the punishment will be.

“Because it is a range, it will be the minimum, the maximum or somewhere in between,” Ocanas said. “It’s not some made up number.” 

The judge then ensures the punishment falls within the statutory guidelines. 

Violations that could land a student in Teen Court include speeding violations, theft under $100, minor assault — as long as there is no bodily injury, curfew violations or a minor in possession of tobacco charge. 

“We sometimes get school offenses referred over to us,” Ocanas said. “Disorderly conduct or something like that.”

Ocanas said many of the students volunteer because they want an extracurricular activity that improves their public speaking abilities. He added that many are National Honor Society members and their time in Teen Court counts toward community service hours required by the organization. 

“Some of them are theater students,” Ocanas said. “They enjoy the theatrics of it. We have students that get real creative.”

The program helps students overcome fears, Ocanas said, because many of them are shy or timid during the attorney training session. 

Because students can participate from the surrounding community, not just Wylie or those enrolled in Wylie ISD, the case manager said students build relationships with peers they might not interact with otherwise. 

Student attorneys commit for a full academic year, Ocanas said, but jurors can be more flexible with their time and do not require the year-long commitment while still counting toward community service hours.

Court Administrator Lisa Mangham said there have been groups, such as a National Honor Society group or Girl Scout Troop that volunteer to serve as a juror for a single docket. 

Mangham also said that typically, part of the sentencing requires defendants to return as jurors. 

Jurors follow a discipline grid, which details the minimum and maximum sentences for various violations. 

As a defendant, Ocanas said participating in Teen Court has a cost benefit because they do not pay the full court costs and fine, which can be expensive.

“As long as they complete the terms of their sentence, that remaining amount would be waived,” Ocanas said. “It is definitely a lesson in life that teaches consequences. It is not just pay the ticket, we’re done.” 

Additionally, if a defendant completes their sentencing term, the violation will not remain on their record.

The program is currently seeking attorney volunteers aged 14 – 18 for the 2022-23 school year. Participants must be willing to commit for a full year. Teen Court is open to the public and meets on the first Wednesday of every month from 5:30 p.m. to 8 p.m at the Wylie Municipal Court in the Public Safety Building.

Applications are available online at wylietexas.gov/departments/municipal_court and can be submitted by email, mail or in person.

Those interested in serving as jurors are not required to submit an application, instead, they can sign up online.

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