Talbot County Sheriff’s Office Saves Teen Court Program After Administering Agency Closes

Talbot Teen Court seeks student volunteers and community partners for the youth diversion program that is now under the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office.
Formed in 1999 by Cory Fink, regional director of the Maryland Department of Juvenile Services’ Eastern Shore Region, the voluntary program is for first-time misdemeanor offenders who participate in a teen court hearing with a jury of peers that determines appropriate sanctions. Student volunteers assume the roles of judge, jurors, bailiffs, clerks and attorneys. A key feature of this model is consensus decision-making when determining sanctions. Sanctions may include community service, writing assignments and workshops or classes.
The program serves first-time offenders ages 13-17 who are referred from local law enforcement for certain non-violent offenses. These respondents will receive a mental health and substance screening with referrals to resources, as appropriate. Failure to complete the program results in referral to the Department of Juvenile Services.
“Teen Court is another spoke in the wheel to help our youth grow and accept responsibility for first time non-violent offenses,” said Talbot County Sheriff Joe Gamble. “Many of us did dumb things as teens, this program will allow our youth to admit to their mistakes, accept responsibility, while understanding there are consequences for their actions.”
Gamble grew determined to continue the program when he learned that Talbot Partnership, which administered the program for the past few years, had to close. Gamble secured funding through the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention with supplemental funding from the Talbot County Council.
“We are grateful for the support of the county council to help finance and support this project,” said Gamble. “Without Governor Hogan’s grant and the support of the Talbot County Council, we would have been hard pressed to re-start this needed program for our families.”
“The Talbot County Council is excited to partner with the Sheriff’s Office on this opportunity for positive outcomes for our community,” said Talbot County Council President Chuck Callahan.
Talbot Teen Court seeks student volunteers in grades 9-12 who can commit to at least four months. Student volunteers must complete two training sessions, made possible through a partnership with Mid-Shore Pro Bono. Mid-Shore Pro Bono also has agreed to support students who show an interest in a law career, with mentorship and community service opportunities. The first student trainings are set for mid-August.
Mid-Shore Pro Bono volunteer Kathleen O’Connor has worked with teen court to revamp the training program, with extensive research, including input from the Center for Court Innovation, in New York. The Center has provided research, programming and expert assistance to justice reformers for 25 years.
O’Connor received her JD cum laude from Catholic University. Her career included serving as a line prosecutor and then supervisor with the U.S. Attorney’s Office; service within the Criminal Division at the U.S. Department of Justice; and deployed on detail with the U.S. Department of State in Malta, directing programs for international terrorism.
“We are absolutely thrilled to be a partner with the new Talbot Teen Court,” said Sandy Brown, executive director of Mid-Shore Pro Bono. “We see this as a great way to educate our youth about the legal process, and maybe even inspire a career in the law or legal services.”
The Talbot Teen Court program uses components of restorative justice to hold youth accountable for their offenses while avoiding formal criminal proceedings. Research suggests these programs are effective, with Maryland teen courts showing low rates of recidivism for program completers. Anne Arundel County’s program, for example, reports an 82% completion rate with an 11% recidivism rate since its inception in 1998.
There are more than 1,800 teen court programs across the country, making them the most replicated juvenile justice program since the first juvenile court in 1899 in Illinois. In addition to reducing recidivism rates among youth offenders, teen court programs typically cost less than traditional juvenile courts, and a greater proportion of offenders may complete sanctions. And because the programs use community service as a sanction, the programs may enhance community-court relations. In addition, the programs may help promote volunteerism and empower youth to continue to make good choices.
Students interested in volunteering should email talbotteencourt@gmail.com. Volunteers should expect to attend several training sessions in addition to court hearings. Talbot County Public School students may receive service learning hours.
In addition to student volunteers, Talbot Teen Court seeks non-profit community service hour partners. If your organization is interested in becoming a community service partner, please email talbotteencourt@gmail.com. More information also is available at talbotteencourt.org.
The Talbot Teen Court program is a voluntary youth diversion program for first-time misdemeanor offenders. The program is based upon the principles that everyone has a right to be judged by a group of peers and people deserve a chance to make up for mistakes. Teen Court is in partnership with Talbot County Public Schools and Mid-Shore Pro Bono (MSPB). MSPB is a local non-profit legal service organization that provides free legal assistance for those who cannot afford it.
Teen Court is administered by the Talbot County Sheriff’s Office via funding from the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention and supplemental funding from the Talbot County Council. More information is available at talbotteencourt.org of via talbotteencourt@gmail.com.