Harker Heights Municipal Court’s Teen Court received a Spotlight award, naming it the best teen court in Texas, during the Teen Court Association of Texas’s annual conference Oct. 15-18 in Allen.
“I really knew we would probably get it because our program is so strong and unique,” said Julie Helsham, court administrator, about applying for the award. “The program is something we hold dear to our hearts and being able to watch these kids grow is an amazing thing to be a part of.”
Each November TCAT holds a three-day conference discussing topics ranging from courtroom security to grant writing and everything in between.
“The conference is a great way to gain new ideas and possibly improve the way your court functions,” she said. “We attended the conference last year, but this was the first year we decided to put ourselves out there. We are really proud of our kids and our program and we are going to continue to push to make it even better.”
The Harker Heights Municipal Court has conducted a teen court program since before 1979 and currently handles about 75 to 80 cases a year.
Helsham said teen court is a form of deferred disposition and is intended to offer juvenile offenders the opportunity to dispose of their cases without having convictions on their records.
“Unlike other teen courts, we truly run our court like a real court versus a debate or a counseling session. If the offenders complete our requirements their record stays clean and they get a second chance,” said teen court Judge Billy Ray Hall Jr. “Having something on their record when they are applying to college or applying for a job is a real draw back to their future.”
To qualify for the teen court program, a juvenile offender must first appear with a parent in open court, enter a plea of guilty or nolo contendere, and request teen court. A teen jury, composed of the defendant’s peers, hears the case and sets punishment according to a schedule approved by the Harker Heights Municipal Court.
Harker Heights High School juvenile defendants who have already been before the court serve as jurors and speech students and debate team members volunteer as prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“This is a great real-world experience for someone without a license to practice law to do this,” Helsham said. “The kids take it very seriously and their friendship ties have no bearing on their decision making process or how they divvy out punishments.”
Punishment consists of performing community service and serving as a teen juror.
Upon successful completion of the program, the charge filed against the defendant will be dismissed.
“Depending on the nature of the offense, it can range up to 46 hours of service per violation,” Helsham said. “The range of punishment hours is based on their offense and the student attorneys debate whether someone gets the max punishment or something on the lower end of the spectrum.”
Teen court is held at 6 p.m. on the first Thursday of every month.
“We felt like we had a quality program but to be recognized as the outstanding teen court in the state is more than reassuring,” Hall said.