One and done: Colorado Springs Teen Court helps first-time offenders
Spending time at the mall was routine for 15-year-old Bella, but this day was different.
"My friend and I were hanging out like we always did," she said. "We went into a store, and when she walked out a couple of minutes later, she said: 'Bella, look, at what I've got!'"
"Did you pay for that?" asked Bella, looking at the shirt.
"No," her friend replied. "Look how easy that was!"
The friends visited four more stores that day, both stealing clothes at each stop until they were caught.
"It ended up turning into this whole big thing!" Bella said.
Because she had no previous brushes with the law or links to gangs, she was given the chance to have her case heard by Colorado Springs Teen Court, a nonprofit that handles up to 80 percent of eligible first-time juvenile offenders in Municipal Court.
Teen Court works with volunteer judges and peer jurors, who sentenced Bella to attend a Community Impact Panel.
There, she met store managers and police officers who helped her see how shoplifting hurts the community and retail employees.
She wrote apology letters to stores, to The Citadel mall and to police.
She also quit seeing her friend - "We were both feeding off each other's dysfunctions," she said - and performed community service at the Women's Resource Center at The Citadel.
Parents must be involved in Teen Court cases. Bella's folks took her out of public school and sent her to St. Mary's High School. Now she's even paying more attention at Mass at Holy Apostles Catholic Church.
"I haven't always been the best Catholic," she said, "but all this has helped me understand second chances, blessings, forgiveness and mercy. It was kind of humbling in a way."
Such stories explain why Teen Court executive director Morgan Mote says, "I have the best job in the world. My heart is full when these kids 'get it' and believe someone is there to support them and help them change their lives."
Repentance, not punishment
The local Teen Court, founded in 1994, is one of about a dozen in Colorado and more than 1,200 nationwide. The courts are part of a restorative justice movement that emphasizes responsibility and repentance over punishment, especially for young, first-time offenders.
The Springs Teen Court handles about 400 cases a year at an average cost of $638 each - much less than the thousands it can cost to take a case through the regular court system, Mote said. Teen Court reduces workloads and personnel needs at the courthouse, saving local taxpayers $250,000 a year.
And unlike some low-cost bargains, Teen Court actually works. Fewer than 7 percent of teens who pass through the court return to criminal behavior, compared with up to 50 percent of those who go through the Juvenile Court system.
"We work with the whole kid," Mote said. "It's not just about shoplifting. We work with the family and the school district to create a personalized plan that can include classes, adult mentoring or tough love, based on the experiential therapy they need."
The work is its own reward, said Mote, who graduated with honors from Colorado Christian University. "Supporting youth who will be the next leaders of Colorado is really important to me. It's about my love for kids and my hometown, and my passion to help kids who have made a mistake and have an opportunity to make some changes."
It's also personal. Mote was 8 when her mother was killed in a car wreck. Her abusive stepfather disappeared, and she lived with a grandmother for two years before being adopted by a local family.
She volunteered at Teen Court as a teenager and saw the results.
"For me, it was the idea there are lives out there that are as hard as mine or worse, but regardless of what your past looks like, you have the opportunity to change your future."
Mayor John Suthers is a big fan of Teen Court. "The vast majority of young people can be positively impacted with a little bit of intervention and never have any other court contact again," Suthers said in the 2017 video, "Teen Court: The Movie" (find online at springsteencourt.org).
"Teen Court is a great program," Bella said.
"This whole thing kind of changed my frame of mind and helped me go in a direction that really changed my life."
If you're interested in volunteering to help Teen Court work with local teens, contact Erick Groskopf at email@example.com or 719-475-7815.