Anchorage Daily News

Teen Volunteers Have Held Youth Courts for 15 Years

Anniversary: Up to 340 kids each year take legal courses

Anchorage Daily News

by ROSE COX
Anchorage Daily News
July 30, 2004

Anchorage Youth Court celebrated 15 years of juvenile justice for youths by youths on July 15 at Hilltop Ski Area. The gathering included current and former volunteers of the program and its supporters.

The court trains young volunteers in legal issues and court procedure so they can arraign juvenile offenders, adjudicate their cases and hand down sentences. For several years after its inception in 1989, volunteers heard about 20 cases a year.

In 1995, the court worked with the Anchorage Assembly to organize efforts to reduce juvenile crime. The effort evolved into the Making A Difference program, pulling together Anchorage Youth Court, the Volunteers of America Resolution Center and Restitution Center, and the state of Alaska Juvenile Intake office.

As a result, first-time offenders who pleaded no contest to a crime were skimmed off the top of the overburdened juvenile justice system and placed in the hands of their peers.

“When we started, every agency was very insular,” said court executive director Sharon Leon. “That’s not the case anymore.”

Streamlining the process through collaboration allowed the court to process many more cases. Since 1996, teen volunteers have seen an average of about 375 cases a year from initial charge through completion of sentence. Defendants have earned and paid victims more than $64,000 in restitution and completed more than 70,000 hours of community service to repay the community for breaking its laws.

It is likely that without the court, there would have been no ramifications for many youths who commit minor offenses, mostly shoplifting, Leon said.

“There were many more cases than juvenile intake could handle,” Leon said. “With the Making a Difference program, there were additional youth attorneys to handle these offenses.”

In addition to saving time, the court saves money, Leon said. The municipality provides about 40 percent of its $285,000 budget, and it gets about 10 percent from United Way and 10 percent from federal Juvenile Justice grants. The remainder comes from in-kind and cash donations from businesses and individuals.

It costs about $54,000 a year for every person at McLaughlin Youth Center, compared with $569 per defendant handled by the court.

“It doesn’t take many defendants at $54,000 a year to see this program is well worth the money,” Leon said.

Harder to quantify but equally significant are the benefits of a community justice program that offers students in grades seven through 12 a basic legal education. Each fall, up to 340 youths from private and public schools study criminal and constitutional law, ethics and advocacy during the 16-hour after-school youth court course taught by volunteer attorneys.

After completing the youth court bar exam, students take an additional 16-hour course before serving. At each stage — from clerk or bailiff all the way to judge — continuing education is provided through monthly classes.

“By the time they get to be a presiding judge, they understand the system and the sentencing guidelines and how to apply them,” Leon said.

Anchorage Youth Court is just one of more than 900 programs in 48 states, according the National Youth Court Web site at http://www.youthcourt.net. Its education component has earned it several national awards, and it was one of four courts in the nation included in the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s study “The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders,” conducted by the Urban Institute in 2002. Anchorage hosted a national conference for court members in other states in 1999, and it co-hosts conferences with other courts in the state. Fourteen of the state’s 17 youth courts are loosely modeled after Anchorage’s, Leon said.

The local court’s most recent addition is a pre-court for ages 9 to 11. The youths, parents, attorney and judge meet informally around a table at the court house. Rather than community service, consequences include additional work around the family’s or other relative’s home, and “asset building” — increasing a child’s support system or social skills or any of the other 40 “assets” children need to succeed as defined in a widely used study by the Search Institute of Minnesota.

“We have a review afterward,” Leon said. “It’s a kudos session. They walk out very pleased with themselves.”

Copyright © 2004 The Anchorage Daily News