Judge and jury of their peers

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Run by teenagers, youth courts increasingly handing down justice

by Christy Oglesby, September 11, 2000

Before the 16-year-old judge gets to the phone, it’s obvious this court is like few others. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” a disc jockey shouts to the caller placed on hold. “It’s time to party up in here!” What follows is one of the latest cuts from the hottest rappers and an announcement about a weekend club party. There aren’t many judicial centers that tune callers to a hip-hop station.

This graffitti painted-building in New York's south Bronx is home to Youth Court two days a week.
This graffitti painted-building in New York’s south Bronx is home to Youth Court two days a week.

But then again, there aren’t many courts where judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers and jurors are teenagers.
That’s the situation at the Bronx Youth Court in New York City. And increasingly throughout the country, it’s becoming the method to give young people accused of crimes their chance to be heard.

It’s cheap. It’s quick. And depending on whom you ask, the sentences are more effective.

Fast and cheap proceedings?

Youth courts generally handle alleged first-time offenders accused of minor crimes. The only drug cases they take involve marijuana.

Nine years ago, there were about 50 such courts. Now judicial watchers estimate there are at least 500. Most of them have existed less than five years.

A jury listens to a case involving a 14-year-old boy in Bronx Youth Court. Teen jurors determine only whether a defendant is "responsible" for a crime.
A jury listens to a case involving a 14-year-old boy in Bronx Youth Court. Teen jurors determine only whether a defendant is “responsible” for a crime.

“You can set up a youth court with as little as a salary for a part-time coordinator, some supplies and a photocopier,” said Jeffrey Butts, director of evaluation of the teen courts project at the Urban Institute in Washington.

It might take months before a young person sees a judge in a traditional juvenile court that costs a couple of million dollars to run. But a young shoplifter can face his peers in a matter of weeks in a youth court that runs on $50,000 a year.

Some youth courts have adult judges with teens as jurors, clerks, bailiffs and lawyers. In others, even the judge is a teenager. Another option eliminates judges and lawyers, and teenage jurors directly question the accused person. Tribunal courts don’t have juries. There, teenage lawyers present their clients’ cases to a panel of three teenage judges.

No matter what the form, they all have the same function. Youth courts provide relief to burdened juvenile systems and handle minor cases that might get dismissed by a traditional court.

Those dismissals could send the wrong message to a young person, Butts said. No time for the crime could lead to youths committing more serious offenses.

“Your average case in juvenile court is a 13-year-old charged with shoplifting or knocking over a mailbox or vandalism,” Butts said. “The juvenile courts would just dismiss it or call the parents. These courts are a way for a more favorable response because some parents don’t take those calls seriously.”

‘They are going to understand more’

"We have shown we are capable of handling it," says Bill Edwards, 16, chief judge of a tribunal youth court in Anchorage, Alaska.
“We have shown we are capable of handling it,” says Bill Edwards, 16, chief judge of a tribunal youth court in Anchorage, Alaska.

The tribunal youth court in Anchorage, Alaska, is one of the few youth courts that determine guilt or innocence. Most operate like the Bronx court, where jurors determine only if the accused is “responsible” for the crime.

A few years ago, Bronx jurors used to make decisions about guilt.

“Out of 100 cases, we acquitted maybe two,” said Joy Taylor, 19, senior youth organizer for the Bronx court. “But people got nervous and said we were letting people get off so we don’t do not guilty or guilty anymore. People think young people don’t have enough common sense to let people off.”

Sixteen-year-old Bill Edwards is the chief judge at the Anchorage court. He has been involved with that court since sixth grade and says age does not affect a lawyer’s or judge’s ability to run a judicial system or mete out justice.

“We don’t have three years of law school or four years of college, but we have shown we are capable of handling it,” said Bill, a junior at Robert Service High School.

People as young as 12 can work in the Anchorage court.

“Our seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders work as clerks and bailiffs,” said Sharon Leon, executive director of the Anchorage court. “You have to be in 10th grade to be a judge.”

Mariah Julsen, 17, is an assistant chief judge in Anchorage but says she enjoys working as a defense attorney. If she were ever accused of smoking marijuana in the school bathroom, she said she would rather face her peers.

Mariah Julsen, 17, says she enjoys working as a defense lawyer in the Anchorage youth court.
Mariah Julsen, 17, says she enjoys working as a defense lawyer in the Anchorage youth court.

“They are going to understand more,” Mariah said. “Maybe someone had been in there before me, and the scent was still there.”

Sentences help teach a lesson

Youth courts function as diversion programs — alternatives to going to jail. None of the sentences involves time behind bars. Jurors devise sentences that are meant to teach a lesson.

Serving in the youth courts and participation in legal education or therapeutic sessions are parts of almost all sentences in most courts. A teen charged with possession of marijuana might be required to complete a drug awareness course, or one charged with assault might have to participate in anger management sessions.

“Some of the sentences we’ve given out painting the wall they put graffiti on, or helping out with Lots R Us. That’s where we plant gardens in vacant lots,” said Dante Motes, 16, who has served as the presider, community impact assessor and youth advocate in the Bronx Youth Court. In the adult court system, those positions are equivalent to judge, prosecutor and defense attorney.

“We have the young person write a letter of apology to the victim,” Dante said. “And then they have to go to the person and give them the letter.”

In Anchorage, the offenders must write essays. The lengths vary by age.

Courts such as the Bronx Youth Court provide relief to burdened juvenile systems.
Courts such as the Bronx Youth Court provide relief to burdened juvenile systems.

“The essay would include what was their participation in the crime, what lessons have they learned, what will they do in the future when the opportunity to break the law comes up again, how did their crime affect the community and what will they contribute to society instead of take away from society,” Leon said.

That’s part of the principle of “restorative justice” that Butts said the youth courts strive to impose. Fines aren’t considered effective, he said, because they could be interpreted as the price of doing criminal business.

“Justice should do more than impose a penalty,” Butts said. “The theory is that fines have less effect than having to confront the impact of the behavior. It’s easier to not care when you don’t have to meet the victim and see how it affected them.”

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