New York Times—Where Teens Find the Jury Isn’t Rigged

By Tina Rosenberg, The New York Times

On Friday, Fixes examined the Youth Court of the District of Columbia, a forum where first-time nonviolent teenage offenders are judged by others who have been in the same situation. The D.C. Youth Court is one of the largest of some 1,000 youth courts around the country. These courts are designed to help minor offenders avoid a criminal record and stay out of juvenile justice — traditionally an efficient production line for criminality.

While most commenters praised youth courts for taking a humane approach, reader Beliavsky from Boston (7) wrote, “Letting young criminals (excuse me, ‘troubled youths’) be judged by other young criminals does not seem right to me. There should be a real, non-criminal, adult, judge.”

Beliavsky is assuming that Youth Court is the soft option. It’s often not so. As reader Andrew Rasmussen of New York (5) said: “The appropriate comparison would be kids who do something and are taken home by the cops to their parents.”

He is right — some of the teenagers in Youth Court would simply have been sent home by the police if youth court didn’t exist. This was one of the original reasons that Edgar Cahn was interested in the idea to begin with: “Young people quickly get the message: ‘You get three freebies before anyone takes you seriously,’” he wrote in 2000.

While Youth Court is a far cheaper alternative to the formal juvenile justice system, it is obviously more expensive than simply driving a teenager home to mom. In DC it is $444 more expensive, the cost of each case.

But consider it an investment that leads to far greater savings in human and financial terms later (incarcerating a juvenile for a year can cost $80,000.) We know youth courts do help steer teenagers on the right path. An Urban Institute study of four youth courts compared teenagers who had committed the same crimes. Those who went to youth court had less than half the one-year recidivism rate of those who went to the formal juvenile justice system.

Why does it work? One theory is that anything would do better than the juvenile justice system, the worst place to send an angry or confused teenager. Arthur Burnett, Sr., a superior court judge who was a founder of the D.C. Youth Court and is now its chairman of the board, said that when he was an active judge, he saw many cases of kids arrested for the crime of behaving like a teenager in a rough neighborhood. “You’re dealing with the problem of the attitude of teenagers to resist authority,” he said. “They get in tussles with the police because they were in the wrong place, and then they’re charged with resisting arrest — a 10-year felony. The other big problem we see in poverty communities is that kids have the attitude ‘here come the cops so let’s get out of here.’ There are lots of arrests for aiding and abetting where the kid at most may be guilty of not wanting to get involved — refusing to talk when the police want them to talk openly in the street. They don’t want to be a snitch, so they end up running. These kids never should have been arrested.”

There is evidence, however, that youth courts do more than simply divert teenagers from juvenile justice: they actively create pro-social behavior. The Urban Institute study found a clue: the courts that give the most autonomy to the teenagers themselves work best. It helps if defendants see their peers as speaking for themselves rather than conveying a message from adults. Also, the more courts are run by teenagers, the more authority and respect they enjoy. In the roughest neighborhoods, respect goes to those who are most feared. For some teenagers it is probably eye-opening to see their peers commanding respect for good behavior.

Youth court is one of the few places where teenagers hear disapproval of their behavior from people whose respect they crave the most: their peers. Geraldine Martin, a teenage judge in the D.C. Youth Court, said that sometime she and a juror will sit for 15 or 20 minutes after a case, talking to the defendant. “We’ll ask: ‘do you think what you did is right? Disrespecting your mother, yelling, cursing — your younger brother or sister would see you doing it and think it’s O.K.’” A juror who is free to tell a defendant he is out of line would never say the same thing in school or on the street corner.

“The most powerful factor is peer support for pro-social behavior,” said Jeffrey Butts, one of the authors of the Urban Institute study, who is now the director of the Research and Evaluation Center at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York. “When a judge controls the room — that’s what their whole life is like. That’s no different than high school.”

The experience of jury service likely matters as well. Angelyn Flowers, a professor of law at the University of the District of Columbia, studied teenagers’ attitudes and behavior at various times in their jury service. She found it to be highly beneficial. Over time, the jurors become more serious about school work and register very strong improvements in their abilities to set goals and achieve them, solve problems and make decisions, among other skills.

In their two months or more of jury service, teenagers get a chance to sit in judgment on others just like them. They get a long-term experience of contributing something, of having their views treated as valuable and worthwhile. They get a sense of belonging from a positive activity.

Jury service also shifts teenagers from being a subject of the court process to an active participant. Butts thinks this is very important, especially for minority youth; one reason racial discrimination is so toxic is that minority groups see the system as unfair. “If it seems patently unfair, why should I play this game? It’s rigged against me,” he said. “That’s part of the reason you want them to come back as jurors. You’re more likely to believe in justice if you see it as fair and evenhanded. Being on a jury helps communicate that.”

Former D.C. Youth Court jurors said that sometimes people understand their own lives better by looking at someone else. “It lets people see their mistakes and see them in other people,” said Lamar Ramos-Peterson. “You get to understand why they did it, and where their head is at.” He was sent to Youth Court for fighting in school — he says he had picked up a stapler to defend himself from a larger attacker. After his jury service, he stayed to volunteer as a judge and as fill-in coordinator of the boys’ discussion group. Now he is studying marketing at Delaware State University.

Ramos-Peterson and other former Youth Court jurors said that the open derision that some defendants carry into youth court sometimes melts with jury service. “They’re scared and try to show off,” said Ramos-Peterson. “They may want to do it right but they act the fool because they don’t know how to do it right.”

Geraldine Martin, the judge, said that once they get comfortable, some of these people become enthusiastic jurors. “Some take it as a joke from the beginning,” she said. “But when I come to court later on — well, look who’s volunteering.”