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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Today, about 265 at-risk teens in Forsyth County are getting a second chance to graduate high school after committing a juvenile offense.

Thanks to programs supported by the United Way of Forsyth County, like the “Teen Court” program, the teens are turning bad decisions into life-changing experiences.

“I was actually at the mall with a girlfriend and she decided that she wanted a pair of rather expensive socks,” said Dawnielle Grace, general counsel and compliance officer for CCI and a former Teen Court participant, of when she was 14 years old and her friend decided to steal. “Instead of walking away, I stood by. I’m seen on camera looking around and I was seen as an accomplice.”

Grace said security then came and took, not only the socks, but Grace and her friend as well.

“Thinking, ‘have I blown it? Have I blown my chances,” Grace recalled. “Am I going to be criminalized for the rest of my life?’”

Instead of being put into Juvenile Court, Grace was diverted to the Teen Court Program. It is designed for youth ages nine to 15, who are first-time offenders.

The youth are required to serve on teen court, which provides lessons to help them make better choices and be accountable for their actions.

Local attorneys and judges serve as judges and proceedings are held in the Forsyth County Hall of Justice, just like real court cases.

“When I think about a lot of things that I see juveniles getting charged with these days, I say to myself, ‘Oh my goodness, I am so glad that they weren’t doing that when I was coming along,’ because I would have spent a lot of days, maybe even in jail,” said District Court Judge Denise Hartsfield, a supervising attorney, judge and advisor over teen court. “We don’t need to let these kids go through the normal criminal system. We need to let these kids get a chance to come into teen court, and to have some mandates placed upon them without the criminalization factor.”

The youth chosen for the program are not committing major crimes.

“I’m talking about food fights, I’m talking about petty arguments between girls, I’m talking about fights on the bus,” Hartsfield said.

She continued to speak about the burden being criminalized places on the youth.

“When you have something on your record at 16, and you’re trying to get that summer job, if it’s a larceny or a shoplifting or other kinds of things, you’re criminalized,” she said.

Hartsfield said she hopes the Teen Court Program will be implemented as a part of the diversion program.