Blount County Youth Court helps get young offenders back on track

MARYVILLE (WATE) – Minors who end up having a run-in with the law often find themselves spiraling into a pattern of bad decisions. There is an effort in the state of Tennessee to use restorative justice to hold kids accountable but get them back on track.

There are 17 youth courts across the state. The only one in East Tennessee is in Blount County and it’s impacting young lives.

A bad decision can lead a child to a juvenile courtroom where harsh sentences can be handed down. However, for some youth, there is a chance at redemption in Blount County.

“They are getting ready to take the wrong road and by putting them in front of a jury of their peers, perhaps they are going to make the right choices in the future and in fact we found they do make the right choices,“ says Lynn Peterson, president of the Blount County Youth Court.

High school jurors Iman Coffin and Conner Harrington have served on the youth court for several years.

She says the students who run the court are making a big difference in the lives of their peers.

More online: Tennessee Youth Courts, Inc.

“I have seen them cry. I have seen them laugh. They are tough in their questions. They are perceptive and they take their job very seriously.

The youth court jurors are trained by local law enforcement and lawyers for nearly 20 hours before hearing cases.

High school jurors Iman Coffin and Conner Harrington have served on the youth court for several years.

“Whenever we get together to deliberate after we hear their side of the story and ask all of the questions we want, I’m always looking for the best and most beneficial option for them,” said Harrington. “Like if they said they like animals, for their community service maybe they can work at the animal shelter.”

Minors who go before the youth court are called respondents and they have to meet certain criteria. They must be non-violent, first time offenders. Their parents have to agree to the hearing. If they complete their disposition, they can have their records expunged for as little as $25 in fees.

“From youth court and from my experiences. I have learned to not judge a kid because you never know what’s going on with them,” says Coffin. “You never know their background, their family life, how they are in school, if they are getting bullied. You never know. So you never want to judge them.”

Lynn Peterson, president of the Blount County Youth Court

The goal is to keep these kids from ending up in juvenile court.

“Many, many people think that juvenile court records just disappear when you turn 18. They don’t,” says Blount Juvenile Judge Kenlyn Foster.

She fully supports the program because of the success she’s seen.

“It’s hard once a child has had a court encounter and is involved with the court system to get that child out of the court system,” says Foster. “The consequences here are more severe. It can be anything from an abeyance where we would hold the case open for months with conditions, to probation, to removing a child from his or her parents or custodian to placing that child in the custody of the Department of Children Services Juvenile Justice.”

That pattern can end up devastating a minor’s future. A juvenile record can follow you even if you turn your life around. If you apply for the military, some career fields that require security clearance, or sometimes college entrance, a juvenile record can interfere with your application.

It can cost roughly $450 to expunge a juvenile record. Going through the Blount Youth Court to throw out a case will result in fees of only $25.

For more information on the Blount Youth Court contact Lynn Peterson at (865) 546-4646 or lpeterson@lewisthomason.com.

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