By JARED KEEVER
Published: November 24, 2017
Long after judges and attorneys had departed the St. Johns County courthouse on the evening of Nov. 14, others were still filing into the north entrance for a special court session.
Inside, in the annex courtroom, the coming session which was scheduled to begin shortly after 6 p.m. was obviously going to be different.
With a St. Johns County sheriff’s deputy and courtroom coordinator providing directions, teenagers were finding their places in the jury box and at their seats behind the tables reserved for prosecutors and defense attorneys.
They were preparing for one of two monthly sessions of St. Johns County Teen Court, a program that allows many youthful offenders to atone for mistakes without incurring a criminal record, the associated penalties or the lifelong consequences — like difficulties landing a job — of that record.
In place for well over a decade, the court is an extension the Sheriff’s Office’s civil citation program for juveniles.
“My predecessor is the one that started that,” St. Johns County Sheriff David Shoar told The Record on Wednesday. “We have found it to be a great tool.”
Crimes that can earn a teen a citation — rather than an arrest and a criminal charge — include shoplifting, vandalism or criminal mischief, possession of alcohol, disorderly conduct, trespassing, interference in a school function, and petit theft, according to an informational handout about the program provided by Teen Court coordinator Theresa Simmons.
Shoar said he didn’t want to call such behavior a “rite of passage” for teens, but said school fights and other such behavior can often reach a point that, technically, an arrest could be made. But that doesn’t mean it should.
“Do we really want to use the criminal justice system for that?” he said.
Harvey Slentz, a Nassau County attorney and professor of business law and employment law at Florida State College at Jacksonville, called those things “predictable teenage issues” when he spoke with The Record by by phone on Tuesday.
Slentz serves as the Teen Court judge.
“I am in my fifth year now,” he said.
He started not long after his granddaughter, a student in St. Johns County schools, showed interest in the program and volunteered as a teen attorney.
“And I got hooked, too,’ he said. “I think the thing that really intrigued me is how effective it was.”
In court that evening, Slentz presided over three cases.
First up was a group of young girls, one of whom had gotten into an argument with a bus driver and the others who started a fight of their own on the back of the same bus.
Each offender — they have to admit guilt just to participate in the program — took the stand, and through a series of questions from the teen prosecutors, told the story of what happened.
Defense attorneys — teens as well — asked questions to bring any mitigating circumstances to light.
The whole process only took a few minutes for each offender, after which the jurors, many of whom were former defendants themselves, deliberated to decide on a sentence.
While that happened, Slentz called all of the attorneys up to the bench to discuss their line of questioning, different strategies they could have tried, and what might have been different in criminal court.
For the group of girls, he told the attorneys, most lawyers would have tried to sever the cases and have the defendants tried separately rather than as one group.
“That’s what happens in big-time criminal cases,” he explained.
Once deliberations were over, Simmons read the verdict and Slentz offered a few admonishments to the girls about their behavior.
For sentences they all received 20 to 30 hours of community service, four to six jury duties of their own, a 6 p.m. curfew until their sentences are served, and each had to offer an “open court apology” to their parents in front of everyone.
The process and sentences were similar for the two other defendants of the night — a teen who got in trouble for a confrontation with a school administrator after disrupting a fire drill and another who was facing a trespassing charge.
Slentz said the whole evening is a learning experience for everyone involved.
The defendants, he said, generally get back on track after brushing up against law enforcement and the criminal justice system in the Teen Court setting.
For most “that’s the last time you will see them in court,” he said.
But the attorneys also get something out of it and learn to”communicate on their feet” when opposing counsel comes up with an unexpected line of questioning.
“They really become fast thinkers,” he said.
Not every juvenile who finds himself or herself caught up with law enforcement makes it to Teen Court. But most of them do make it to the office of Deputy Kelly Kemp.
While the circumstances of some incidents warrant or dictate an arrest and criminal charges — the Sheriff’s Office has a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence incidents, for instance — those teens who do receive a civil citation meet with Kemp along with their parents.
In a small office just off the Teen Court courtroom, Kemp, runs them through a short lesson on discipline that involves some push-ups, standing at attention and at ease, then he sits down with the family to discuss whatever circumstances might have led to the citation.
“We talk about family issues, dynamics and figure out what’s going on,” he said in an interview earlier this month.
That’s part of an assessment that determines if the special court is the right path, or if there might be drug or alcohol issues at play.
“We don’t give them just community service,” he said. “We see if they need to go to counseling through EPIC (Behavioral Healthcare).”
No matter which path the teens take, Kemp continues to work with them by helping coordinate their community service time (they set up equipment for the Police Athletic League and some delivered turkeys to those in need earlier this week) and shepherding them through Teen Court appearances and jury duty service.
He stands with each defendant as they are sentenced and, as evidenced the other night by a tap on the elbow of one young juror and a reminder to stand up straight, continues to serve as a mentor as they fulfill their requirements.
Kemp, like Slentz, said he sees the court and the civil citation program making a real difference.
“We have a great recidivism rate,” he said.
For the judge, a lot of that has to do with Kemp’s efforts.
“He is a story by himself,” Slentz said. “He does so much for kids.”
Because of the program’s success and because he enjoys the work that he sees as an “extension” of his work at the college, Slentz, whose wife also helps out in court most nights, said he will likely continue the work even after his granddaughter graduates next year.
“I may stay on after that,” he said.