To provide more details of a Teen Court program, I'd like to give an overview of the one in effect in Clay County, Florida (just south of Jacksonville).
Court is held once a month. The first thing you notice when you reach the second floor, where the Teen Court cases are handled, is the surprisingly professional feel of it all. High school students in suits and ties ferry hapless "clients" around, with mother's anxiously waiting to hear the verdict. Sitting on a bench just outside a courtroom is a young man, dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, sneering at the world, the picture of a Law And Order criminal. Near the stairs a woman checks defendants against a list, and shows them to their attorneys. The tone is one of court, not one of play-acting.
The heirararchy of the whole system is fairly simple. If you're there to get some community service hours, you're going to be a juror. There is always a shortage of jurors, and so anyone without a long-term committment is assigned to that role. If you like the program and want to get more involved, you can attend the training and become a co-attorney. This is a teenager who shadows an older peer, and helps out with the case. The shadow usually does the opening statement, and maybe cross-examines the defendant, but for the most part the attorney does the talking.
The attorney does a lot more work. The attorney gets his or her case (or sometime's cases) about a week in advance, and so has time to prepare. It is his or her job to keep track of the defendant, and basically be the link between the law and the criminal.
Above the attorney is the Junior Coordinator. This is the highest office to which a teen in the program can ascend. Instead of trying cases, although this too is sometimes required, the Junior Coordinator manages the distribution of cases, the availability of courtrooms, the organization of the night, and basically anything else that needs to be done.
If a teen does not wish to become an attorney he or she may sign up as bailiff. The bailiff serves just like his or her counterpart in the adult legal system: to ferry information and defendants back and forth and keep general order. A clerk is also present, who keeps track of the cases coming and going in a particular courtroom.
So how does a perpetrator come to be sentenced at Teen Court? First of all, the person must be within the age limits: 13-18. Also, the crime must be a misdemeanor and the teen must have admitted guilt at the time of arrest. Usually the guilty party is given the choice of going before a judge (the usual course of events), going before the Sheriff (you take a chance, but sometimes you get off light... not often though) and going to Teen Court. If the person elects to go before a court of his or her peers the judge will either allow or deny the request, and proceed from there. Most juveniles do not go before Teen Court, as the system is already crowded enough.
At court, the defendant will stand before a jury of teenagers, be defended by a teenager, and be prosecuted by a teenager. In fact, the only adult taking part in the court session is the judge, who would usually be a local state attorney. Since the defendant has already admitted guilt, the "trial" would be merely a sentencing hearing, with the defendant as the only witness. Nonetheless, opening statements, questioning, redirect questioning, and closing statements and rebuttal are all present. Beyond being a formal court session, the program serves to educate teenagers and prepare them for a possible career in the law.
Sentences are binding, and consist of a few things. The defendant, no matter how pathetic looking, will always be given a number of community service hours (at least 10) and a number of manditory appearances at Teen Court as a juror. This ensures that the program will always have enough jurors to meet the demand of defendants. Beyond this, the defendant could also be sentenced with such things as curfews, essays, manditory participation in court programs on drug use or similar topics, tours of the jail (scare tactics), and other varying punishments. A light sentence might consist of 10 to 15 community service hours and 5 jury duties, whereas a heavy sentence could pack up to 40 community service hours, 15 jury duties, a tour of the jail, a spoken apology, a written essay or two, and required involvement in a court program.
Does the program work? I believe it does. Several prominent teen attorneys in the program were former defendants who were intrigued by the court. Many former attorneys went on to go into law or political science. Many teenagers scored points with college acceptance boards with Teen Court on the resume. All in all, the Clay County Teen Court program is a relatively cheap way to bring juvenile delinquents back in line, and teach the fundamentals of the legal system to many young people.