New York Times – Hey Judge, Aren’t You in My Math Class?

August 19, 2007
The New York Times

YORKTOWN, N.Y. — A HUSH descends on the courtroom as the judge pounds his gavel and calls his first case: The People vs. Missy DeMeanor.

Ms. DeMeanor is accused of putting a CD in a shopping bag lined with aluminum foil, to throw off security sensors, and heading for the exit. The prosecutor’s key witnesses are Police Officer Dunkin (as in Donuts) and a store clerk named Jimmy Olsen.

The case, of course, was a mock trial, acted out by seven middle and high school students in preparation for the real thing. They were among a group of 23 teenagers who took a 10-week course this spring, complete with a bar exam, to become officers of the Yorktown Youth Court, scheduled to start in September.

Held in the town’s courtroom, the court will not have a jury, and the judge, prosecutor, defense attorney and bailiff will all be teenagers. Their job is to hear out the defendants, interview witnesses and mete out sentences, most likely 10 to 30 hours of community service and a letter of apology.

The student officers don’t decide guilt or innocence; and, as in 93 percent of youth courts nationwide, the defendants in Yorktown must acknowledge their guilt to participate. In exchange, they avoid a criminal record.

“The offender has the benefit of getting another shot,” said Claire McKeon, who runs the Town of Babylon Youth Bureau, on Long Island. “If they made a mistake, it’s not something that has to mark them for the rest of their life.”

Youth courts, also called teenage courts or peer courts, are unofficial, alternative courts in which low-level offenders, generally of high school age, are diverted from the juvenile justice system and agree to be judged by other teenagers.

“When you’re faced with a group of your own peers, it sets in more,” says Brendan Frail, 16, a student at Yorktown High School who was the judge in the mock trial. “It’s more convincing.”

According to the Justice Department, which promotes youth courts by providing training and technical assistance, there are more than 1,270 youth courts in 49 states and Washington, up from 5 in 1980 and 78 in 1993.

Law enforcement officials hail youth courts as one of the fastest growing ways to prevent juvenile delinquency. One federal official, Assistant Attorney General Regina B. Schofield, called the courts “one of the most exciting developments in juvenile justice.”

“The program provides communities with an opportunity to ensure immediate consequences to the first-time youth offender through a peer sentencing,” Ms. Schofield said. “It helps guide our youth into a greater respect for the law, their communities, and themselves.”

In addition to Yorktown’s youth court, Westchester has six others, in New Rochelle, Greenburgh, Bedford, Peekskill and Yonkers, and at the alternative program at Hastings High School. There are seven on Long Island, in Glen Cove, Huntington, Brookhaven, Riverhead, Southampton, East Hampton and Babylon.

New Jersey has one, in Perth Amboy. “It’s not for lack of trying, but I can’t find funding for it,” says Angel Perez, deputy director of the New Jersey Association on Corrections. “Given the number of kids it can touch, the $75,000 price tag is a bargain.”

Connecticut is the only state in the nation without a youth court. However, there are about a dozen juvenile review boards that include teenagers but are not run by them. “They’re mechanisms for youths who have committed low-level crimes to be sanctioned in a way that avoids them having to go to court, and attempts to address any underlying issue that may have led to the criminal activity,” said Melissa Farley, executive director of external affairs for the Connecticut Judicial Branch.

Like many youth courts, Yorktown’s will work closely with the police and probation officers, and will hear only first-time offenders accused of nonviolent misdemeanors, like vandalism, shoplifting and under-age drinking.

Art Lander, a retired police officer, started the Yorktown Youth Court, along with a community group called the Alliance for Safe Kids, in response to an increase in marijuana possession and theft arrests. “The issue is to reclaim our kids, to keep them in the community,” Mr. Lander said.

Youth court offers the proverbial win/win situation: It lightens the overburdened juvenile court system, educates its student officers and tries to rehabilitate offenders by building on their strengths. The youth court in Huntington, on Long Island, for example, sentenced a graffiti artist to paint public murals.

“We’re not looking for harsh sentences, but for an alternative way for these kids to come back into the community and become better citizens,” Mr. Lander said.

Many young offenders make the most of the second chance. A 2002 study by the Urban Institute, a social policy research group, compared nearly 500 juveniles referred to teenage courts with an equal number of juveniles accused of similar offenses who had gone through the regular juvenile system. The study found that the recidivism rate among youth court participants ranged from 6 to 9 percent compared with 18 percent for those handled in traditional courts.

What makes youth courts effective, said Janeen Buck Willison, who worked on the study, is “youth holding other youth accountable, harnessing positive peer influences.”

Locally, the Greenburgh Youth Court followed 90 offenders who had gone through its program and found that five years later only two had been rearrested.

“There aren’t many opportunities for kids who have been in trouble, and kids who have not been in trouble, to take such a serious role in how their community responds to crime,” said Carl Wicklund, executive director of the American Probation and Parole Association in Lexington, Ky., a professional organization.

Mr. Lander and his colleagues at the Alliance for Safe Kids hope their youth court will eventually turn out success stories like that of Renee Lakowitz, a one-time defendant in the New Rochelle Youth Court. In sixth grade, she was caught stealing a roll of film from a supermarket and was sentenced to tutor younger children at the Y.M.C.A.

Now 23 and a college graduate, Ms. Lakowitz said she started socializing with the young people she met there, and extended her tutoring a year beyond her sentence. She said the experience helped her turn her life around.

“They didn’t have me pick up garbage on the side of the road,” she said. “I was actually doing something productive.”

Mr. Lander said, “That’s what it’s all about: meaningful assignments to bring them back into the community.”

“We want them to learn,” he said. “We want them to step up to the plate. That’s exactly what it’s all about.”