About Tennessee Youth Courts

Youth Court Sites in Tennessee

What We Do

The U.S. Department of Justice Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) says that regardless of the model used, the primary function of most teen courts is to determine a fair and appropriate sentence or disposition for a youth who has already admitted to the charge (Butts, Buck, and Coggeshall 2002).

In Youth or Teen courts, teenagers who volunteer to sit on the youth court decide the sentence for other teens who admitted to committing an offense.  These teen volunteers base their sentence on restoratvie justice where -

  • The teenager learns that bad decisions affect many people and that you have to take responsibility for your actions — Accountability
  • The teen who caused the harm learns how to make better decisions — Competency development
  • If a teen has a good relationship with her community, she will not act out against it. By connecting or reconnecting the youth to his community, you build a relationship that reduces the likelihood of acting out agains the community -— Community safety/communiy service

For the youth who volunteer, Youth Courts inform and educate young people about the role of law in our democracy and about their role as active citizens. Volunteers learn about court procedures, sentencing options, trial techniques, structure of the justice system, the meaning of justice and relationships between rights and responsibilities.

Young people who are equipped with knowledge of the law and how it works within the judicial system are inclined to have a better understanding of their connection to the American system of justice. The youth feel that they are participants not potential victims.

The Tennessee Youth Court Program

It is the miission of the Tennessee Youth Court Program to spur the comprehensive and statewide development of youth court programs by: 

  • Expanding and supporting youth courts as effective, evidence-based, peer-driven juvenile justice alternative and
  • Promoting youth court programs as an important feature of juvenile justice services in Tennessee that seek to improve outcomes for all youth in our communities. 

The Tennessee Youth Court Program supports youth courts throughout the state with funding, training of both adult and youth volunteers, educational events, technical assitance, site visits, and data collection. 

What We Don't Do - The Tennessee Youth Court Program

does not

provide advice or assistance with custody issues.

How We Do It

In Tennessee, most youth court programs are operated by juvenile courts.  However, if authorized, law enforcement, schools, and private nonprofit organizations may operate youth court programs.

Youth Courts are attentive to the unique needs and diversity of the community they serve. The Tennessee Youth Court Program seeks to develop strategic partnerships with existing civic, educational, law enforcement, courts and faith sector organizations to expand existing youth courts and improve their sustainability. These partnerships also assist in bringing Youth Courts into new communities. As a result of these collaborations, the Tennessee's youth courts will further bolster the educational and economic futures of young people and promote the ideals of lifelong civic involvement.

There are over 1,400 youth courts in 49 states and the District of Columbia. In Tennessee, there are operational youth courts in Blount, Crockett, Davidson (4 school-juvenile court partnered courts), Hamilton, Haywood, Lake, Madison, Memphis/Shelby, Montgomery, Sullivan, Sumner,  and Wilson Counties. Look for new courts to begin in Cheatham, Marshall, Rutherford, Tipton, and White Counties. A speicail pilot program with middle school aged youth is being implemented at the Martha O'Bryan Center in Nashville.

Each youth court varies in response to the needs and resources of its community, but typically youth courts handle cases involving young people, ages 11 to 18 who are first time offenders and who have been cited for low-level offenses, such as vandalism, shoplifting and truancy.

The primary function of Tennessee Youth Court programs is to determine a fair and restorative disposition for the youth respondent.

  • According to the National Youth Court Database:
    • 93% of youth court programs in the U.S. require the offender to admit guilt prior to participating in youth court.
    • In the 7% of youth court programs that allow youth to plead "not guilty," if a youth chooses to plead "not guilty," the teen/youth court conducts a hearing to determine guilt or innocence. If the defendant is found "guilty," then the youth court gives an appropriate disposition.

What Do Youth Courts Look Like — Program Models

The four primary youth court program models are the Adult Judge, Youth Judge, Peer Jury, and Youth Tribunal Models. The Youth Judge Model has not been adopted by programs in Tennessee.

  • Just as on the national scene, the top three youth court models in Tennessee are the adult judge model, the peer jury model and the youth tribunal model. 
  • According to the National Youth Court Database:
    • The Adult Judge Model is used by approximately 53% of youth courts.
    • The Peer Jury Model is used by approximately 31% of youth courts.
    • The Youth Judge Model is used by approximately 18% of youth courts.
    • The Youth Tribunal Model is used by approximately 10% of youth courts.


The Tennessee Youth Court Program offeres training for both the adults and youth who volunteer.  In addition, youth volunteers receive training from members of their community, such as judges, attorneys, licensed counselors, teachers, law enforcement and civic leaders. They learn how courts are structured, proper courtroom behavior and rules, how to prepare for a case, how to question a witness, and how to determine a fair consequence/disposition.

And Look How Well We Do It!!!!

During our fourteen or so years of operationing youth courts in Tennessee, our average to date is that fewer than 6% of youth who go through the prorgam as offenders commit another offense. That's a 94% success rate!  Last year, with more youth participating and more hearings, fewer than 4% of youthful offenders were charged with another offense.  That's a 96% success rate!!!

These are our children helping other children.
We can be very proud of the work these youth court volunteers are doing. 


Make a Contribution

Volunteer Your Time

Find out more

Tennessee Youth Courts

Youth Courts Model Restorative Justice
Tennessee Bar Journal, April 2015

2013-14 Year End Report

2013-14 Year End Report


Denise Bentley

Denise Bentley
Youth Court Coordinator
(615) 277-3207

To find out more about the Youth Courts program, contact Youth Court coordinator Denise Bentley.

Denise works with the Tennessee Legal Community Foundation to establish local youth court programs across the state. These programs have proven successful in many areas and she is excited to be a part of the development of this program in Tennessee.