Judge Robin Shearer Explains the Benefits of Teen Courts

While researching Georgia’s Teen Courts, we got the chance to talk with Judge Robin Shearer, the Chief Judge of the Juvenile Court of Athens-Clarke County. Here is a summary of the conversation:

 

Courts Journal:  What do you think are the greatest benefits of peer and teen court programs?

Judge Robin Shearer:  Well, first, our peer court perfectly supports and responds to the requirements of Juvenile Justice Reform to keep kids out of court as much as they were in the past. Because we know that appearing before the judge doesn’t really keep kids from getting in trouble…Second, we know that peer relationships are extremely important in adolescence. Teens really respond to their peer group. With the peer court, they are reminded that there are people in their peer group that are doing positive things. And I think it is great leadership training. It gives the kids a chance—both the volunteers and the kids in the program—to become leaders.

 

Courts Journal: How do kids get chosen for the peer court?

Judge Robin Shearer: Most of the screening is outside my purview. We do have a rubric that we use, and that works well. And sometimes when I see someone in court, I might ask why haven’t they been screened for peer court, and I often will withdraw a petition and send the case to peer court.  Mostly, the kids are screened for the program using the rubric.


Courts Journal: You aren’t really hands-on involved with the peer court. That seems to be because you want the teens to run the program on their own. Is that right?

Judge Robin Shearer:  Well, the main reason is because if the person doesn’t complete their sentence requirements, then I will have to hear about that. But it also allows the teens in the program to become leaders on their own. To see eighth through twelfth graders debate aggravating and mitigating factors in a case on their own is amazing.

 

Courts Journal: These programs are generally focused on low-level offenders. How does that make a difference?

Judge Robin Shearer: There is an argument that low-risk offenders are not likely to reoffend. But in the old days, with misdemeanor offenders we would put them on an indefinite term of probation, which would really be for two years. Well, in two years with a teenager, you are going to have something that they’d do to get back in trouble. In the old days, we would push them deeper into the system from a lack of knowledge about what was best. Here, we put them in a peer group and give them some accountability. So the recidivism rate stays low. Maybe we could do nothing, but with peer court we teach them to be leaders. The value of the program is that we recognize that low-level offenders have a place. If we treat kids in the right way on the front end, we reduce recidivism.

 

Courts Journal:  Your program has a lot of community involvement, especially from the University of Georgia’s Fanning Institute of Leadership and Emily Boness, who was a peer court participant herself. Do you think your program’s success continues because of her enthusiasm for the program and the community support?

Judge Robin Shearer:  Absolutely. I know that Emily’s enthusiasm shines through her work in the program.  And we get letters from kids who have participated in the program who tell us afterwards how involved they have become in their community and community issues after their participation in the program. These letters come from volunteers and participants, so we know the leadership benefits are real.

 

Courts Journal: What would you say to a judge interested in starting a peer court?

Judge Robin Shearer:  You have to have all the players willing. In Athens, we had a community-based decision-making process when we started the court. That allowed us to choose and tailor the program to what we thought was best for Athens.

 

 

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