A Jury of Their Peers

By JEREMY CAPLAN
Time Magazine
July 11, 2005

In youth courts, teens run the show, but experts say there’s nothing juvenile about this form of justice

To complete her cross-examination, prosecutor Sarah Carr, 16, had one final question for Andrew G., 17, the defendant in a recent case at the youth court in Colonie, N.Y.: “Didn’t you know it was wrong?” Andrew nodded shyly, eyes averted. He knew that stealing a $4.97 Star Wars action figure from Wal-Mart was not only a petty crime but also a geeky one in the eyes of his high school peers, some of whom were serving on the jury.

In Colonie’s youth court, the jurors and lawyers are adolescents and so are the judge and the bailiff, who swears in witnesses that often include the only adults in the room: parents, victims and police officers. The perps are limited to first-time offenders who are under the age of 19 and who admit guilt to minor crimes. Sentences are generally creative forms of community service, never jail terms, and the record shows that 99% of those sentenced complete the required tasks. Doing so keeps their criminal records clean, which helps for college and job applications.

JUDGE: Kenny Thai, 14, presides over Colonie youth court. — Photo by KATJA HEINEMANN / AURORA FOR TIME

Youth court is quickly becoming an institution across the U.S. In 1994, there were just 78 such courts; today the number is 1,035 and growing. Some are run by schools, others by police departments or nonprofit groups. All told, these junior courts will hold more than 100,000 trials this year, according to the National Youth Court Center in Lexington, Ky. Advocates say they not only help relieve criminal-court backlogs but have also proved they can turn around a kid who has gone wrong. A study by the Urban Institute found that youth courts are often more effective in preventing repeat crimes than are other methods used by cities to discipline first-time minor offenders, which range from a letter of warning to referral to juvenile criminal court. “Youth courts provide a more thorough and personal response,” says Jeffrey Butts, who directed the Urban Institute study.

The peer-court concept dates back to 1947 in Mansfield, Ohio, where kids handled neighborhood trials for young bicycle snatchers. The modern youth court started to take shape in the early 1970s, when a few cities experimented with a more formal kind of peer justice. In recent years, the movement has gained momentum, cheered on by police departments and local governments eager for justice that works and does so cost effectively. An entire youth-court trial typically takes less than an hour, including deliberations. Nationally, the program’s average cost per case is about $480, according to an American Youth Policy Forum study. Probation, by contrast, costs about $1,635, while the cost of trying a juvenile in criminal court usually ranges from $21,000 to $84,000, according to the study.

Youth courts devote attention to infractions that busy juvenile and family courts tend to handle perfunctorily. “Referring kids [to peer courts] lets us do more than just slap them on the wrist,” says Patrice Lockart, a victim specialist with the Colonie police department. The experience is also more attuned to teenagers’ moral development, conveying not just that there are consequences for their behavior but also that society cares about them.

Offenders aren’t the only ones to get a lesson in justice at youth court. Volunteer defenders and prosecutors, who undergo eight weeks of training, also come to understand the judicial process. They serve for at least a year, often more. When not lawyering, they rotate among the other court roles: judge, bailiff and jury foreperson. Jurors are untrained volunteers in seventh through 12th grades. They carefully weigh sentences, which usually range from 30 to 60 hours of service—cleaning a local park, washing police cars, working at a food bank—depending on the severity of the crime and how much remorse the guilty party shows. In Colonie, defendants finish their sentences by serving on a jury. “They know what it’s like to be in that hot seat, so they’re in a good position to find a punishment that suits the crime,” says Violet Colydas, the youth court’s director.

During deliberations in Andrew’s sentencing, juror Stephen McCann, 13, wondered aloud why a 17-year-old was still playing with action figures. The jury foreman then questioned whether Andrew should have confessed sooner to his parents. After all the jurors had their say, the group reached a consensus: 30 hours of community service and an apology letter to Wal-Mart. “By now he should be mature enough not to steal toys,” McCann said. “I think this will help him resist the temptation.”

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Copyright © 2005 Time Inc.