By KATHARINE JARMUL
Jan. 30, 2008
The 14-year-old respondent walked up to the front of the courtroom, swearing to tell “the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” She sat down in front of the court, her stylishly dyed ponytail falling in front of her face for a moment.
“Tell us what happened,” the lead juror started. She wore a black shirt that read “Red Hook Youth Court – Senior Member,” signifying she’s been a part of the court for more than three years.
Kia describes how she cut school to go get her hair cut at a salon near her house. She went with one of her friends, and her friend didn’t bring money to pay. When it came time to pay the bill, Kia went outside to use the payphone and the hairdresser tried to stop her. Kia hit the woman, and now faces assault charges. The young people on the jury nod and continue to question Kia, asking questions about Kia’s life, friends, goals and self-esteem.
Red Hook Youth Court is a courtroom unlike others in Brooklyn, N.Y. Within this room, young people are judges, jurors, advocates and respondents. Only youth court members and respondents, all under the age of 18, hold the power of speech. In fact, adults are not allowed to speak unless they are asked by a court member. Kia’s mother looked on from the front row of observers as the jurors continued to question her daughter. She held her hands tight on her purse, but smiled often as Kia answered the questions.
The U.S. Senate named this September National Youth Court Month. The Senate bill recognized the impact of the court on young people involved. The bill, which passed unanimously, stated, “Youth court programs encourage participants to become valuable members of their communities” and “redirect the efforts of juvenile offenders toward becoming contributing members of their communities.”
Youth courts are a fairly new development, with most youth courts starting in the early 1990s. Since then, more than 1,300 youth and peer courts developed across the nation.
Youth court practices restorative justice, meaning the court intends to find a clear resolution to appease both sides rather than using sentencing and punitive methods of justice. According to a youth court review of restorative justice practices, crime is viewed as a “violation of relationships” rather than a violation of law. This enables the youth court members to talk with the young person about issues in the respondent’s life, motives for the action and to challenge the young person to see the crime from the other person’s point of view. Policymakers at the Office of Juvenile Justice Development continue to support restorative justice projects and studies. Many believe these practices work best with young people who have many life opportunities ahead and can choose to follow a more positive path in the future.
This philosophy relates to the common youth court practice where respondents are recruited as members of the court once they complete their sanctions. With more than 80 percent of respondents to the Red Hook Youth Court completing their sanction within the allotted time period, the court allows young people to learn from their experiences and then share that knowledge with other young people.
Restorative justice leads the verdict in Kia’s case as well. After the jury deliberated, the young people filed back into the room.
“Has the jury determined a sanction?” the judge asked from behind the large youth court banner.
One of the young male jurors stood to read the sanction. He held a paper with the sanction and read, “We, the jury, determine the respondent will write an essay of 300-words. You said you wanted to become a hairdresser, so your essay will be the incident from the point of view of the hairdresser.”
The youth court structure gives young people decision-making power that is often unparalleled in their world. Through this empowerment, youth court members develop strong critiques and opinions on topics within criminal law and juvenile justice. These members are critical of current practices within the juvenile justice system — specifically youth incarceration, the lack of voice that most young people have when they face a traditional court and mandatory sentencing laws.
The 24 Red Hook Youth Court members must go through a 10-week legal training and pass a youth court bar exam to sit on the court. In the room today, there are four senior members who have been members for more than three years. Youth involved in the court are dedicated to their role in the room — using positive peer pressure to influence the lives of the young people who enter the room as respondents.
Shaniqua McPherson has been a member of the court for over three years. The 17-year-old says traditional courts should “give every respondent a voice.” She said youth court allows respondents to speak for themselves. “You can’t judge someone because you don’t know them,” she adds.
Christian King was a respondent to the court before he became a member one year ago. The 15-year-old was involved in an assault case and once he completed his hours of community service, he chose to join the court. King explained how youth court is different than traditional courts.
“Youth court is more calm. In traditional court, people feel under pressure…When you’re here in youth court the main purpose is to get you through the process and you learn from the mistakes and you won’t do it again,” King said. He said that it’s important for young people to get a clear record so they can go to college and get jobs in the future and youth court gives them the opportunity to do that.
McPherson criticized traditional courts and sentencing in a similar way. She said youth need an opportunity to get another chance and explain their side of the story, but also youth need to learn from their actions. She disagrees with incarceration as a form of effective crime intervention for young people.
She described how a teenager might be arrested and stopped for fare evasion, or jumping a turnstile. Young people can receive up to three weeks in jail, but might still not have learned a lesson about why they were there.
“They may say ‘Okay, I got locked up. Next time let me look around and see if there are cops around.’ When you come to youth court and we give you a sanction that benefits you, that makes you think back and reflect on your actions, you wouldn’t even bother to look around to see if there’s cops around you just go through the toll pay your $2. You learn a lesson,” McPherson said.
King also criticized practices in the juvenile justice system that deny young people the right to tell their side of the story.
“During juvenile cases there’s a lot of cases where people go straight to a probation officer from the precinct and they don’t get to explain their side of the story, so it makes it unfair for a person who’s claiming that they didn’t commit a crime, going to a probation officer. Basically, getting assigned an officer for something they didn’t do,” he said.
Both King and McPherson want to become lawyers upon completing the court.
“It makes you want to go into law even if you weren’t interested in law before that because it makes you see how the system is and how you would want to change it to make it better,” King said.
Shantay Martin, a former member of the court, is now the court coordinator. After working as a member, she decided to return after completing her master’s in public education. She strongly believes in the youth court structure, and she isn’t alone. She said the local judge, Judge Caprese, often refers cases to the youth court.
“It shows that he trusts the process,” she said. “He trusts the young people and the sanctions they create.”
Martin hopes the growing trust in youth courts can help broaden the cases that appear in the youth court. Currently, the youth court doesn’t hear gang cases or gun cases. Although Martin wants to ensure the safety of members of the court, she said these larger cases might best be heard in a youth court.
“It could be something happening that is a real problem with that young person. There could have been bullies bothering him and doing so many things to him day after day. I feel like if we come to youth court and he hears from other young people that we can help him and the situation would be better,” she said.
Members of the National Association of Youth Courts meet in late December to develop new initiatives and share ideas. This annual meeting allows young people and the adults involved in the courts to continue to build and maintain their programs.