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Teen court is a teen no longer, celebrating 20 years in Rochester

The federal courtroom on State Street looks like any courtroom you have in your head. A panel of jurors to the right, attorneys and defendants to the left. But the difference is everyone in front of the room is between the ages of 16 and 19 years old.

Rochester Teen Court itself isn’t a teen any longer. For 20 years, these sessions have had teen jurors and attorneys sentencing teen defendants.

Judge Frank Geraci helped start the court in 1997 and presides over cases. He says this isn’t mock court, these are real cases with real consequences, that the kids take seriously.

"They come with an amazing vision because they understand each other. Sometimes they’re actually harsh. We had to reduce the number of hours of community service because they were giving them 100 hours, when a normally a judge would give them 10 hours."

Geraci says it give defendants more of a chance to explain themselves and get to the root of the issues that lead them here. As a city court judge then, Geraci said he saw too many of the same kids coming back for similar offenses.

"I saw teens coming into court repeatedly. So they get arrested, get arrested again for the same type of offenses, minor offenses in city court. We weren’t dealing with the underlying issues that got them there in the first place."

Defendants first attend city court for their offense and if it’s a minor or non-violent crime they cane by referred by judges to teen court. So they have already admitted guilt and are here just for sentencing.

Teen juries can dole out sentences like writing apology letters, community service or drug and alcohol evaluations.

Jack Kehoe is a passionate 18-year-old prosecuting attorney, and a freshman at Roberts Wesleyan College.

"Whoever lends their ear to me I'll talk to them about teen court."

He’s been with the court for almost two years now, saying he wants to help kids see the judicial process in a different light.

"The court rooms are not these big scary places, the people inside are really interactive and they’re people you can relate to. It takes the formal pressure away and it allows for people to understand the court system."

The program is run with the help of the Center For Youth.

If defendants complete their teen court sentence and stay out of trouble, their record may remain clean.