Spotlight On: Nicasa Teen Court

Nicasa Teen Court

Walk into the North Chicago Police Department’s courtroom on a Wednesday night and you will find an unexpected scene. Court is in session and a judge is presiding, but it isn’t a traditional court of law. It’s Teen Court, where the jurors, foreperson, attorneys, clerk and bailiff are all 14 to 18-year-old volunteers (mostly from North Chicago Community High School and Lake Forest High School) and the defendant is a first-time youth offender who has admitted guilt to a misdemeanor crime.

Misdemeanor crimes, like truancy, curfew violations, damage to property, drug and alcohol possession and disorderly conduct, are thought of as relatively minor crimes compared to felonies. But misdemeanor crimes do come with consequences and result in a criminal record which can affect the rest of a young person’s life.

Based on the concepts of balanced and restorative justice, the Northern Illinois Council on Alcoholism and Substance Abuse (Nicasa) began running the Teen Court program in Lake County in 1996 as an alternative to the traditional juvenile court system. Teen Court “teaches youth to accept responsibility for their offenses, restore damage that was done and learn to make better decisions in the future through a constructive sentence by a jury of their peers. Successful completion of the program removes the offense from the youths’ record.”

Nicasa operates seven teen courts in partnership with police departments in Round Lake, Round Lake Beach, Round Lake Heights, Round Lake Park, Fox Lake, Gurnee, Wauconda, Waukegan, North Chicago, Winthrop Harbor, Zion, Beach Park and the Lake County Sheriff’s Office. Once a month, at each of the seven court locations, new cases are addressed and old cases are brought back for progress reports on the completion of the offenders’ sentences. Sentences typically include attending a Nicasa-run TRACK Life Skills Class, which teaches youths decision-making skills, helps them to understand the impact that their offense has on both themselves and others, and guides them on how to identify positive and negative influences in the lives. Sentences may also include community service, journaling, written papers, letters of apology and/or a drug and alcohol evaluation among other recommendations.
Teen Court is truly a peer-driven program that uses positive peer pressure and peer judgement to help address delinquent and criminal behaviors. Aside from an adult volunteer judge who presides over each session, it is ultimately up to the volunteer teens to hold court. The teen jurors and attorneys are required to go through Nicasa’s training programs, which gives them the skills needed to present cases, question defendants, deliberate and recommend constructive sentences. More than 150 Lake County teens volunteered for Teen Court in their local communities in 2018.

While the Teen Court program is rewarding and inspiring for the volunteers (several jurors have become attorneys themselves), it can also leave a lasting impact on the youth offenders. More than 78 percent of the youth that are referred to Teen Court have successfully completed the program, and only six percent of those who have completed the program are repeat offenders. In 2018, eight defendants who successfully completed the program turned around and joined Teen Court as jurors.

Nicasa Teen Court Success Story: Last year a young lady was referred to Teen Court on a charge of disorderly conduct. She acted out negatively to be recognized. In Teen Court, her peers determined that she instead needed to be recognized for doing positive things. Her sentence consisted of the TRACK Life Skills class to learn better decision-making skills, participating (shadowing) as a juror for two Teen Court terms, continuing with recommended counseling, creating a role model chain and documenting one thing each day that she did to be a good role model for her younger brother. This young lady struggled with her decision-making and relapsed many times, though the jurors refused to give up on her. Although her case took longer than most, she kept at it and, with the support of Teen Court, the police department and her parents, she was able to successfully change her behavior, complete the requirements and be released. She showed the Teen Court jury remarkable perseverance, commitment to change and desire to be better. Now, the young lady plans to volunteer as a juror for Teen Court when she becomes old enough to join the program.

Nicasa Teen Court By the Numbers: 

Nicasa’s Teen Court has served more than 5,625 youth throughout Lake County since 1996                                                                     13 Lake County police departments participate in the Teen Court progam                                            
78 percent of the youth that are referred to Teen Court have successfully completed the program; only
6 percent of
those who have
completed the program are
repeat offenders                                      
10 percent of defendants who have successfully completed the
Teen Court
program have
joined the
program as jurors                            
In 2018, 150 Lake County teens volunteered to serve as Teen Court jurors, attorneys, clerks, forepersons and bailiffs for the benefit of their community and peers                                                                                               

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