Baseball caps and do-rags are dutifully removed while court is in session. The prosecutor is a deliberative, soft-spoken young man of 16 with a crown of cornrows. The defense lawyer is 16, too, only recently out of jail on a charge of attempted murder. On the six-member jury sits a girl with searing eyes and the memory of juvenile jail still fresh in her mind. And when the accused, a gawky 15-year-old charged with graffiti writing and weapons possession, rattles off the names of gangs he has a ”beef” with at school, the courtroom congregation nods and murmurs knowingly.
This is not a high school moot court, where students pretend to be players in a court of law. This is a court of law, a small, quiet experiment in which Bronx teenagers arrested on misdemeanor charges and even minor felonies — anything from graffiti writing to small-time robberies and drug sales — are judged, quite literally, by a jury of their peers.
They are all first-time defendants. They are referred here by a probation officer or a judge, as an alternative to prosecution in the city’s overtaxed Family Court, where children under 16 are tried.
The teenagers who run the Bronx Youth Court, begun two years ago by youths organizing inside the city’s juvenile jail, see their mission as what the United States Constitution guarantees: a speedy trial before a jury of one’s peers.
Most of them have been through the juvenile justice maze, what they universally call ”the system.” They know well the inside of a juvenile jail (19 months in the case of Francisca Martinez, 16, the defense lawyer, known in Youth Court as youth advocate). They know how slowly the Family Court can move (three and a half months in detention for one juror, Latoya Orr, accused of stabbing another girl, until a judge ruled in her case). The court seems to derive its credibility from the youths’ firsthand knowledge of the system.
”I never got to talk to my lawyer the way I wanted to,” said Miss Martinez, who was convicted of stabbing a girl. ”I wanted to be there for somebody, being that nobody was there for me.”
The effectiveness of such youth courts is largely unproved, but they have sprung up across the country in the last decade, spurred by frustration with the juvenile justice system.
Today, there are about 650 youth courts nationwide, compared with 50 in 1991, according to the Justice Department’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
They handle mostly nonviolent first-time defendants: children accused of shoplifting, vandalism and other crimes unlikely to be prosecuted otherwise.
”There’s a feel-good quality to them,” said Jeffrey Butts, a senior research associate with the Urban Institute, a research organization in Washington, who is conducting a national evaluation of youth courts for the Justice Department.
That same quality gives experts like Mr. Butts a sense of deja vu.
”A hundred years ago, we invented juvenile court to get kids out of the bureaucratic criminal court system,” he said. ”Now we’re inventing youth courts to get them out of juvenile court, or to create alternatives.”
There are four such courts in New York City. Two were created by the state, in Harlem and in Red Hook, Brooklyn. A third, in Queens Village, was begun by civic leaders and the city corporation counsel’s office, which prosecutes children in Family Court.
All but the Bronx court handle youths arrested for the smallest infractions. One-fourth of the cases tried in the Brooklyn Youth Court, for example, involve truancy, which is not prosecuted in Family Court.
The Bronx Youth Court is unusual because, operating with the sanction of the city’s Probation Department, it tends to judge more serious offenses — drug possession with intent to sell, robbery, weapons charges.
The idea is to steer the accused away from crime and provide some restitution. Among the judges, jurors and lawyers are those whose own sentences included serving in Youth Court.
Not many get off.
Of the roughly 70 youths who have appeared in the Bronx Youth Court in the last two years, only 2 have been, in effect, acquitted, and none have been arrested again, according to Youth Force, the youth-run community group that established the court.
The Probation Department does not keep statistics, though officials there say anecdotal evidence suggests that it is effective.
The other day, as the late afternoon sun streamed in through the barred windows at Youth Force’s headquarters in the Mott Haven section of the Bronx, the court was weighing the case of a freshman at Columbus High School.
The police thought he had been a lookout for a graffiti crew. The defendant, who agreed to allow a reporter to attend his trial if his name was not used, said he had merely been standing on the sidewalk, trying to hail a cab, while his friends were ”bombing” a wall with graffiti.
Questioning the defendant, the jurors homed in on certain details: the police had found a knife in his pocket, and he had missed nearly three months of school.
”Anybody who carries a knife in their pocket, if they get busted, there should be some sort of consequence,” argued Dante Motes, the prosecutor, known in the court as a community impact assessor.
The defendant, removing his baseball cap at Miss Martinez’s urging, said he felt unsafe at school. His friends had angered several gangs, and some friends had been shot a couple of weeks before. That was why he was skipping school, he said, and carrying a knife.
”People are looking to jump me, shoot me,” he cried. ”How you expect me to feel safe?”
Some jurors were skeptical. His friends were shot only two weeks ago, but he had missed school for several months. If he really felt unsafe, why not ask the principal for a transfer to another school?
What did he do in his spare time? Were there youth centers near his home? Why had he been hanging out with these friends, anyway?
So it went for nearly two hours as the jury tried to decipher the penal code and understand the defendant’s life better.
His mother, they learned, was in Yugoslavia. He lived with his sister and brother in the Bronx. He was not in a gang. He was trying to transfer to another school. He liked to play football.
After deliberating for 20 minutes in a closed room upstairs, the jury found him ”responsible” on two of four counts and sentenced him to a two-hour legal rights workshop (mandatory for all Bronx Youth Court defendants), four hours on a Youth Court jury and 16 hours working on a Youth Force project.
Such projects have included voter registration drives and undercover stings against stores that sell alcohol to minors.
What lasting effect, if any, this will have on the young man remains to be seen. Statistics on recidivism rates of Youth Court defendants are only anecdotal, but supporters of the Bronx Youth Court and others point to the alarmingly high recidivism rates in the juvenile justice system.
A recent study by the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, for example, found that 81 percent of the boys incarcerated in the state juvenile justice system were rearrested within three years of their release.
Organizers of the Bronx Youth Court like to tell their peers how they fared in the juvenile justice system. ”From arrest through court through incarceration, we went through feeling confused, powerless and alone,” reads a paragraph from a pamphlet given to all defendants. ”Almost all of us came out of the system disillusioned, better criminals, less educated and without the resources needed to succeed.”
Copyright 2000 The New York Times Company