Youth courts train teenagers to serve as jurors, judges and attorneys, handling real-life cases involving their peers. The goal of youth court is to use positive peer pressure to ensure that young people who have committed minor offenses pay back the community and receive the help they need to avoid further involvement in the justice system. Youth courts hear a range of low-level crimes; many handle cases that would otherwise wind up in Family Court. The Center launched its first youth court in 1998 as part of the Red Hook Community Justice Center’s efforts to engage young people. Today, the Center also operates youth courts in Harlem, Staten Island, Brownsville, and Newark, N.J.
With the support of former New York State Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye and the law firm Skadden Arps, the Center for Court Innovation supports more than 80 youth courts throughout New York State through training, consulting, publications and promoting the value of youth courts. The New York State Bar Association devoted the January 2011 issue of the New York State Bar Journal to examining how youth courts can play a larger role in addressing juvenile crime throughout the state.
Finally, with the support of Skadden, Arps, the Center is providing technical assistance to several New York City high schools to help them launch youth courts. These youth courts will hear a range of disciplinary cases, providing a new resource for school administrators to strengthen the school community and divert students away from detention and suspension.
How It Works
Each youth court varies in response to the needs and resources of its community, but typically youth courts handle cases involving young people, ages 10 to 18, who have been cited for low-level offenses such as vandalism, fare evasion, assault and truancy. The Center’s youth courts receive referrals from schools, the New York City Police Department, the New York City Department of Probation, Family and Criminal Courts, and local District Attorney's offices.
Youth courts incorporate the following features:
Accountability: Youth courts require young people to take responsibility for their actions and pay back the community for their crimes. Youth court staff contact each young person and his/her guardians to describe the youth court process, and schedule a hearing date for those who agree to participate. At the hearing, the respondent has the opportunity to tell his/her story and answer questions posed by members of the jury. After considering all of the information, the jury decides on a fair and appropriate sanction that holds the youth accountable and restores the harm done to the community. Sanctions typically include community service, letters of apology, and skill-building workshops. Youth court staff work closely with respondents to ensure that they complete sanctions as mandated. Successful completion of sanctions typically results in a favorable disposition of the case by the referring agency.
Access to Help: Adult staff members are responsible for making an initial assessment of each respondent and linking them to appropriate social services. Some services, such as conflict resolution workshops, may also be part of a respondent’s sanctions. Youth courts also strive to link respondents to training and after-school programs to help them avoid further disciplinary action in their schools and communities.
Peer Leadership: To ensure that respondents truly are judged by their peers, youth court members—ranging from 14 to 18 years old—are not “creamed" from the top of their classes. Youth courts recruit participants from a range of local high schools and community-based organizations. They require no minimum grade point average or any previous experience. Young people who have previously appeared in youth courts as respondents are strongly encouraged to apply. Participants receive 30 hours of pre-service training on critical thinking, precision questioning, active listening and youth court protocols. In addition, they participate in on-going, intensive youth development and team-building activities to help cultivate their leadership skills.
The Center’s youth courts conduct hundreds of hearings annually. Over 90 percent of respondents complete their sanctions as ordered. Every year, well more than 100 young people serve as judges, jurors and advocates.