Florida’s juvenile arrest rate is down from 76 delinquency arrests per 1,000 juveniles in 2008 to 52 arrests per 1,000 juveniles in 2012. Some experts attribute it to the implementation of Youth Court, also known as Teen Court, programs throughout the state.
“The goal of youth/teen courts is preventing penetration into the system by young people who can better be served without formal prosecution and detention,” said Jack Levine, who volunteers as program director for the National Association of Youth Courts.
Youth Courts have been in practice since the early 1970’s in America and allow for great benefits:
- Lower cost to the courts- an average of $480 per participant compared to an average of $21, 000-$84,000 per case in a formal court system [via YouthCourt.net]
- Lower recidivism- fewer than 10 percent find their way back into the system compared to 30-70 percent with a case through the formal court system [via Urban.org]
- Positive peer pressure through youth juries
- Conducted during the evening to allow parental involvement
“Diverting them into teen court or youth court where they are handled outside the formal court process is good because it keeps them from having a formal record,” said Irene Sullivan, a retired circuit judge in Pinellas County who has experience handling juvenile delinquency cases. “It’s a more therapeutic and rehabilitative way of treating juveniles.”
First-time juvenile offenders in Humboldt County, California, are sometimes referred not to a judge in a black robe, but to their peers for sentencing. Part of a growing trend to infuse accountability and restorative justice into juvenile justice, teen courts involve teenagers (some volunteers, some performing court-ordered community service) who hear the facts of a case and decide on sentences for their fellow juveniles.
The sentences in these courts can be unique and varied—and often involve the teens’ perceptions of what the juvenile offender must do to make society whole and repair the damage done for his or her crimes.
In Humboldt County, teens sentenced their peers in 341 cases between 2001 and 2012, and only 28 youth were charged with a new crime within a year after their stint in the teen court.
Beginning last winter, I was assisted by several volunteers: lawyers, social workers, law students and an eighth grade teacher, as we struggled against great odds to teach 25-30 eighth graders to operate a youth court. Each Thursday morning, we would enter the classroom as the students waited apprehensively for the lesson plan to begin. We wanted them to participate but often, many were not interested. The children were in an overcrowded classroom due to financial constraints. The class was too hot, the building was noisy and students ran through the halls chasing each other. We learned from the teacher that new students were entering and leaving her class on a weekly basis, and some were shuffled in and out of alternative schools and returning from charter schools which no longer would tolerate their disruptive behavior. However we persevered; though at times I was not sure these students would ever conduct an actual hearing. It was just too disruptive and many of the students seemed unable, or unwilling, to control their behavior. Hardly the kind of students needed to run a youth court.
In North Carolina, teens are joining together to stand up against bullying. As part of the Salisbury Police Cadet Program, teens are joining youth court participants in making an anti-bullying video.
The Salisbury Police Cadet Program is for young people ages 13 to 21 who are interested in a career in law enforcement. As cadets, they learn about the criminal justice system while gaining life skills and mentoring. This year, they are partnering with local teen court participants and Reclaiming Futures Rowan County.
Teen Court is a program that allows first-time teen offenders to be "tried" by their peers for misdemeanors. Teens serve as attorneys and jurors, while local attorneys serve as judges. Sentences given out through teen court often consist of restitution and community service, with a focus on rehabilitation instead of punishment.
From the Salisbury Post:
Unique circumstances sometimes underlie juvenile delinquency cases. In order to properly handle those cases and prevent further wrongdoing, targeted approaches can specifically address those underlying circumstances in ways traditional juvenile justice systems cannot.
The circuit court in Winnebago County, Illinois, recently initiated the Youth Recovery Court for youths with mental illnesses or substance abuse issues. Specifically limited to youths charged with nonviolent offenses, the court seeks to treat the mental health or substance abuse issue to prevent further delinquency linked to those health issues. This community based program incorporates a high level of family participation to ensure adherence to the treatment plan.
It’s a familiar courtroom scene: An advocate scribbling on a notepad prepares her closing statement. A judge presides, pounding her gavel to bring the hearing to order. She turns to the offender, a young man being tried for assault, and asks,
“Do you swear to tell the truth?”
“Yes,” he replies.
This is when things start to look different from a traditional courtroom. A juror stands, thanks him for attending, and says, “We just want to let you know we’re not here to judge you or criticize you.”
The juror, named Milagros, is a high school student. Everyone participating– judge, jury, advocate, clerk and offender – is under 18. At the Harlem Youth Court, kids who have committed low-level offenses can avoid formal prosecution and instead tell their side of a story to a jury of their peers.
Tina Rosenberg, writing in the New York Times' online Opinionator column in a piece published last week, voiced support for the Youth Court of the District of Columbia, while also dissecting public misconceptions surrounding it:
While most commenters praised youth courts for taking a humane approach, reader Beliavsky from Boston 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 said: "The appropriate comparison would be kids who do something and are taken home by the cops to their parents."
Rosenberg contends the DC Youth Court is about more than just bypassing a broken system:
There is evidence 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 ... 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.
You can read the entire post here.