Teen court marks milestone with success story

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SARASOTA - Sarasota County's program to keep young people who commit crimes out of the criminal justice system celebrates 25 years of giving kids who own up to their misdeeds a second chance.

Stefan Campagna remembers. Before he became an attorney. Before he went to Hofstra University law school or college, he went to teen court. “Without teen court, I would have ended up getting kicked out of high school, would not have gone to college, definitely would not have gone to law school,” he says.

At age 16, he faced 27 felony charges for breaking into cars. He was a bright student at prestigious Pine View School. Why do something so stupid? “I remember when I was 16 on the stand was asked why, and my answer was, 'I don't really know.' And then, once again, 'what were you thinking?' 'I really wasn't thinking,' was my answer back then,” he says.

Sarasota county became the first in the state to set up a teen court in 1988. Just as in regular court, the offender sits judged by his peers. As part of Campagna's sentence, he had to sit on juries for other kids going through teen court, which happens in the judicial center downtown. And that when asked the same question – why? – almost all the kids gave the same answer.

“The vast majority of the kids who are sitting as defendants are there because they weren't thinking,” he says.

Katie Self has overseen the court since it started, and says the jury of their peers has made it work. Four out of five kids who go through it, stay out of trouble. “It turns them around, gives them some real positive review of the court system but in a less punitive way,” she says. “It's far more rehabilitative.”

Not all those who complete teen court go on to law school, and help create other teen courts around the country, like Campagna has. But those who make it realize that a little thought goes a long way. “So it really teaches the kids think before you act, have a reason for what you do,” Campagna says.

Campagna passed the bar exam this summer, but he works not as a lawyer, but as a consultant to other teen courts around the country. Sarasota county's teen court holds its anniversary celebration Saturday at Michael's on East restaurant. To buy tickets, whose proceeds help support the court, visit http://flteencourt.net/sarasota.