Mecklenburg County Teen Court (MCTC) is proud to celebrate the 25th anniversary of its founding. It began with a small but determined group of Assistance League members. No one had a legal background, but they gathered a wealth of knowledgeable, experienced and professional juvenile advocates around them to form an Advisory Council, equally determined to provide an alternative justice system for juveniles aged 10-15 in the Charlotte community.

Assistance League of Charlotte (ALC) charter member Vicki Riordan was the first MCTC Chairman. She had worked in Cook County, Chicago, and was driven to bringing a youth diversion opportunity here to Charlotte. Founding member Susan Russell, immersed in city government, promoted teen court to the Mayor and all who would listen before the chapter had even voted to start the program. She and charter member Laura Royster took on Vice Chairmen roles; and with the support of VP Philanthropic Programs Mary Bartley, the journey took off and a program committee formed.

The vision was clear—to help youthful offenders take responsibility for their actions by providing a second chance when they admit their guilt, agree to be tried by a jury of their peers and complete the sentence awarded to them to avoid a permanent criminal record.

The juvenile justice community in Charlotte had already been talking about this diversion concept and jumped at the chance to help Assistance League make it happen. Commitment letters for an Advisory Council were formalized with Juvenile Services Court Counselor Kim Sauer, Council for Children Director Larry King, Youth & Family Services John Walter, District Court Judge Yvonne Mims-Evans, District Attorney’s Office Reid Chisholm, Children’s Law Center’s Phil Redmond, Sheriff’s Department Major Rick Combs and CMPD Officer Dale Green. Assistance League met with Chief District Court Judge Jim Laning and subsequently, on February 15, 1996, received his “unhesitating endorsement” for the efforts to initiate Mecklenburg County Teen Court. Court was now in session and a pilot program convened holding court on four consecutive Saturday mornings from April 27 through May 18 at the old courthouse.

ALC also received endorsements from Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools (CMS), the Bar Association and the newly formed Carolina Panthers. CMS allowed ALC members to make presentations to various middle schools to recruit volunteer teens. Attorneys volunteered from many sources with help from the Teen Court Advisory Council and Judge Hugh Lewis, whom members met in the process of scouting out court space for the pilot program. The Panthers provided a boost to public relations and fundraising efforts, even thrilling attendees of the ALC gala with Honorary Chairman Coach Dom Capers, his wife and several players showing their support.

It is extraordinary that for 25 years, the whole community has continued to come together to help teens that have chosen a wrong path or made a poor choice. A small group of volunteer women, not trained in the legal field, made this legal diversion happen when others could not. These amazing volunteers:gleaned information from other teen court programs across the country and developed training manuals for volunteer teen jurors and those who wished to advance to teen attorneys;

  • created all the legal forms necessary to process a case in court and hold the teen responsible until completion of the sentence;
  • developed job descriptions for each of the roles they filled on court nights and for intake interviews;
  • developed lists of agencies that agreed to help youthful offenders complete their community service hours;
  • recruited a list of trusted attorneys to preside as judges for two double courts a month;
  • convinced CMPD, the Sheriff’s Office and the Chief District Court Judge that ALC was committed to succeed and could be trusted to live up to promises;
  • hired their only employee, Lauren Bowley, a professional child advocate with a MSW, in 1998 to become the MCTC Program Administrator;
  • continue to share responsibility for seeing youth and families through a difficult time, demonstrating care and commitment to positive change.

Over the years, Assistance League has trained thousands of teen volunteers to be jurors, clerks, bailiffs, jury foremen and attorneys who have operated a legal courtroom under the supervision of an adult attorney volunteer presiding as judge and ALC members filling coordinator roles. Success stories include the many former defendants who return to join the volunteer force as well. The statistical success shows in a long-standing low recidivism rate, this last year being 2.4%.

While the program was started with the focus of helping youthful offenders, it only works through the empowerment of youth to make a difference. Jury and attorney training encourages group discussion, sharing of ideas to reach group decisions, public speaking and interest in a future legal profession. Teens have participated in many other experiences for further mentoring— NC Teen Court Summits in Raleigh, Oak Island, Camp Thunderbird, Southern Pines; a National Teen Court Conference in Albuquerque; many Mock Trials; speaking presentations to City Council, County Commissioners, School Board and other interested groups.

Last year an effort was made to enhance the educational opportunities for all participants. Two classes of teen attorneys were trained, an advanced attorney training was provided, and a Discovery Workshop was held for jurors. Networking was done with Gaston County to hold a joint training and Mock Trial for teen attorneys. Adults attended conferences and state meetings, and a CMPD officer who oversees the MCTC intake process spoke at an ALC regular meeting so the entire membership could experience this life-changing program from his point of view. In 2020,only the second year of MCTC Acknowledgement Scholarships, the amount awarded was more than doubled to $14,000 with seven recipients.

COVID-19 has forced MCTC to adapt to changing circumstances. Several events, along with court sessions in March–August 2020, had to be cancelled due to the pandemic. Teen Court has met the challenge of a closed courthouse by combining virtual and live attendance at court sessions held at the Assistance League Center. The judge, teen attorneys, program administrator and three ALC members are present, with the defendant and a parent, in the board room, which now serves as a courtroom.

The jury is present via Zoom on a large screen. Although some of the personal interaction of actual court deliberations is missing, cases that have been in limbo since March are finally being processed.

Little did that small, determined group realize that team-building of people from all over the community—teens from public, private and home schools; volunteer judges from public and private practices; CMPD; the Sheriff’s Office; Juvenile Justice; all the churches, schools and agencies offering locations for teens to do community service hours; community volunteers and ALC members—would have such an impact. But, 25 years later, this juvenile-based justice system continues to place strong emphasis on accountability, positive peer influence and youth empowerment to affect change within their own generation.