Abstract: Teen Court: Effects on Social Relationships, Behavior, and Mental Health in Rural Adolescents (Society for Social Work and Research 20th Annual Conference - Grand Challenges for Social Work: Setting a Research Agenda for the Future)

Teen Court: Effects on Social Relationships, Behavior, and Mental Health in Rural Adolescents

Sunday, January 17, 2016: 12:00 PM
Meeting Room Level-Mount Vernon Square B (Renaissance Washington, DC Downtown Hotel)
* noted as presenting author
Roderick A. Rose, PhD, Research Assistant Professor, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Caroline B.R. Evans, PhD, Research Associate, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Paul R. Smokowski, PhD, Professor and Director, North Carolina Academic Center for Excellence in Youth Violence Prevention, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC
Katie Cotter, PhD, Assistant Professor, Arizona State University, Tucson, AZ
Background/Purpose: Teen Court (TC) is a diversion program for first time juvenile offenders and is used as an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system. Rather than determining guilt or innocence, a peer jury selects sanctions for the defendant including community service, writing a letter of apology, paying restitution, and various workshops such as anger management or life skills. The limited existing TC research primarily evaluates how this program impacts recidivism rates. To date, no research has evaluated whether TC is associated with other positive changes such as improved family relationships or mental health functioning. The purpose of this exploratory study was to determine whether participation in TC was associated with improvements in mental health functioning, aggression and violent behavior, family interactions, peer relationships, and perceptions of school in a sample of rural youth in a low income, racially/ethnically diverse county in the South.

Method: The current sample is comprised of 392 TC participants ages 10-18. Two comparison groups were used: 4,276 youth from the same county as the TC participants (many of these youth received the PA intervention) and 3,584 youth from a neighboring rural county (these youth received no interventions). Data were collected using the School Success Profile Plus (SSP+) prior to participation in TC and six months following the completion of all TC sanctions. TC parents also filled out measures of familism, parent-adolescent conflict, adolescent aggression, violence, and delinquency. Following multiple imputation and propensity score analysis, an unconditional difference-in-difference method was employed.

Results: Relative to youth in both comparison groups, youth who successfully completed TC reported significant decreases in internalizing symptoms (t=-2.67, p=.008, neighboring county; t=-2.85, p=.004, same county), aggression (t=-2.93, p=.003, neighboring county; t=-2.07, p=.04, same county), and parent-adolescent conflict (t=-2.66, p=.008, neighboring county; t=-2.77, p=.006, same county) and a significant increase in school satisfaction (t=3.23, p=.001, neighboring county; t=2.31, p=.022, same county). Compared to the comparison group from the neighboring rural county, TC youth reported significant decreases in delinquent friends (t=-3.32, p=.001), violent behavior (t=-3.30, p=.001), and school hassles (t=-3.47, p=.001) and significant increases in self-esteem (t=2.10, p=.04). TC parents reported significant decreases in parent-adolescent conflict (t=7.35, p=<.001), adolescent violence (t=7.36, p<.001), adolescent aggression (t=9.52, p<.001), and adolescent delinquency (t=8.03, <.001) from pre-test to post-test.

Conclusion/Implications: Participating in TC was associated with improved mental health functioning, more positive school experiences, and more positive relationships with parents and peers. Based on the current findings, it appears that the experience of interacting with prosocial TC volunteers and participating in the TC sanctions not only deters further delinquent behavior, but might also serve to positively impact other areas of youths’ lives. These findings highlight the importance of further exploring the impact of TC on aspects of youths’ lives along with rates of recidivism.