PANAMA CITY, Fla. (WMBB) — An important part of the Bay County Teen Court program is returning this weekend. 

Defendants will be completing community service work as part of “Project Make a Difference”.  

Teen Court is an alternative to the regular justice system for first-time offenders who commit minor crimes. The court is run by student volunteers who serve as jurors, lawyers, clerks, and bailiffs.

Around 9,500 kids have been diverted during the program’s 28-year history. Teens in the program are usually sentenced to community service work.

Depending on the misdemeanor charge, the defendant can do anything from 24 to 32 hours of community service. 

“It also not only teaches the kids to give back to the community, but it also helps them understand we are helping people that can no longer help themselves,” Executive Director Suzanna Cox said.

The work is conducted under the “Project Make a Difference” umbrella. The Teen Court defendants perform tasks like lawn service for the elderly, disabled, hospice clients, and community events. Local churches and non-profits provide referrals. 

“A lot of time they’re on fixed incomes and their yards code enforcement was getting called, so that how it really started out,” Cox said. “We are getting calls from code enforcement saying hey can help this elderly person out.”

Teens completing the program will get their charges expunged from their records.

The teen court also helps out with college scholarships and this includes volunteers.

The program builds self-esteem, encourages public speaking, and being positive role models to their peers. Teen Court has an 89% success rate. 

“It is really amazing to see when the lightbulb comes on and a lot of them come back and volunteer for us there is a lot of hard work to get to the end,” Cox said.

Teen Court is in session every Tuesday at 4 p.m. and they’re looking for student volunteers to be attorneys, jurors, or clerks.

You can find out more information on their website or contact Cox at coxs@jud14.flcourts.org.