Harlem Youth Court
The Harlem Youth Court trains teenagers to serve as jurors, judges and advocates, handling real-life cases involving their peers. The goal of the Harlem Youth Court is to use positive peer pressure to ensure that young people who have committed minor offenses restore harm done to the community and receive the help they need to avoid further involvement in the justice system. The Harlem Youth Court hears a range of low-level crimes referred by the New York Police Department, the New York City Department of Probation, local schools, the New York City Law Department (presentment agency for New York City Family Court), and Criminal Court. The majority of cases that come to the Harlem Youth Court are for shoplifting, truancy, and fighting.
The Harlem Youth Court is part of the Harlem Community Justice Center. For more information about the Harlem Community Justice Center, click here.
How It Works
The Harlem Youth Court is a program for young people aged 13 – 19 referred by local schools, police officers, probation officers, criminal court and the community for offenses such as curfew violations, vandalism, disorderly conduct and truancy. These young people appear before a judge and jury of their peers – other neighborhood teens – who determine fair and appropriate responses. Before the Youth Court hearing, the referred youth – the “respondent” – meets with his or her “Youth Advocate,” a young person who represents the respondent throughout the case. During the hearing, the respondent tells his/her story and is questioned by members of the jury. Unlike in a traditional court, the purpose of the jury’s questioning is not just to learn more about the offense, but to understand better what led to the incident, how the respondent feels about his/her experience, and to prompt the respondent to reflect on his/her behavior. After considering all of the information and the respondent’s personal strengths, the jury decides on a fair and appropriate sanction that holds the youth accountable, restores harm done to the community, and assists the youth to avoid trouble in the future. Harlem Youth Court staff members closely monitor the completion of sanctions and then report back to the referral source. Most cases move through this process, from intake to resolution, in one month, depending on the respondents’ ability to complete sanctions in a timely manner.
The Harlem Youth Court is a restorative justice program that emphasizes:
Responsibility: The Harlem Youth Court teaches young people that actions have consequences. Because this message comes from other young people, it is more likely to be heard and understood. The youth court process asks respondents to reflect on their actions and understand how their behavior affects others around them.
Restoring the Community: Harlem Youth Court members care about their community and expect the same from their peers. Respondents are often sanctioned to restore the harm done to their community through service, apologies and other actions. For example, youth have been sanctioned to help plant trees in local parks, help community groups set up for local events, and assist in local activities for younger children.
Help: The Harlem Youth Court links young people and their families to social services on-site and in the community, and provides workshops to help youths make better decisions and avoid future involvement with the justice system.
Leadership: The Harlem Youth Court uses youth development strategies that develop member’s leadership skills. Members are trained in group-decision making, critical thinking and public speaking. The program provides a positive opportunity for young people to engage with judges, lawyers, criminal justice officials and the court system. In addition to this, youths who have successfully gone through the youth court program as respondents are encouraged to become members.
In 2012, Harlem Youth Court heard 93 cases. Over 90 percent of respondents completed their sanctions as ordered, including over 262 hours of community service. Every year, more than 25 young people serve as judges, jurors and advocates.
The Harlem Youth Court opened in 2001, and takes cases from the South Bronx and Manhattan. Harlem Youth Court program partners include the New York Police Department, New York City Department of Probation, New York County District Attorney’s Office, New York City Law Department, New York City Family Court, Phoenix House, City-As-School, and High School of Graphic Communication Arts.