In Youth Courts, Teenage Judges Hear Your Case

In Youth Courts, Teenage Judges Hear Your Case

In Youth Courts, Teenage Judges Hear Your Case

With volunteers in middle and high school, approximately 1,400 teen courts in the US allow young people to be defended, prosecuted, and sentenced by their peers.

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One of the cornerstones of the American judicial system is the right of a defendant to a trial by jury. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State,” reads the Sixth Amendment. But when you imagine what that jury will look like, you don’t expect middle and high schoolers clad in khaki pants and button-down shirts.

But that’s exactly what Mateo Jamie, a 17-year-old from Alaska, saw when he walked into the Anchorage Youth Court.

On the day of his scheduled hearing, two teenage prosecuting attorneys sat at the counsel table, reading through Jamie’s file and preparing their arguments. Three teenage judges walked in, dressed in black robes that—on them—might have looked more like Halloween costumes than traditional judicial attire. Since Jamie had already admitted to the crime, the trial consists of a short sentencing hearing. The youth judges exited the room, and just 10 minutes later, Jamie learned his punishment: a 600-word essay and 25 hours of community service.

In the last few decades, the prevalence of youth courts has increased significantly, going from 78 youth courts in 1994 to approximately 1,400 today. The number of cases these courts handles can vary, but the Anchorage Youth Court has received between 50 and 100 cases per year since 2020.

Here’s how it works: Depending on the severity of the crime, an arrested minor may be offered the option to divert their case to youth court—sometimes called a teen court. To participate in this informal process, the child must accept a guilty plea, and if they fail to complete the sanctions that the youth court imposes, their case is returned to the juvenile court system. Since youth court sentences do not appear on an offender’s permanent record, they offer a chance for minors to learn from their mistakes without risking future college and job opportunities. And although most defendants gratefully accept the plea so that they can avoid juvenile court, there is always the concern that this requirement can pressure innocent teenagers into falsely admitting guilt.

There are currently four different models of youth courts—adult judge, youth judge, peer tribunal, and peer jury. Models featuring an adult judge are the most common, but the defining element of any youth court is that minors are involved in the trial and sentencing of one of their peers. Given the role that youths play in these trials, the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention endorsed these courts as an “effective way to educate young people in active citizenship.”

According to Alysyn Thibault, the director at the Anchorage Youth Court, the recidivism rate for offenders tried in youth courts has hovered around 16 percent for the past 10 years, compared with a rate of 39 percent for offenders who committed similar offenses but were tried in traditional Alaskan juvenile courts.

Of course, some concerns remain about the reliability of youth courts, especially since the trials are often anything but impartial. Studies have shown that youth courts hand out more severe sanctions than regular juvenile courts for similar offenses. But these punishments normally include community service, counseling, or an apology to those harmed. “This approach is intended to send a strong message to the community, including other youth, that responsible youth do not condone law-breaking behavior,” according to a 1996 guide by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

For example, whereas a typical juvenile court might be more likely to give a verbal warning, most youth court trials result in a sanction meant to help deter the defendant from committing future offenses. These sanctions, which often involve dozens of community service hours, are meant to be restorative for offenders. “Because crime hurts, justice should heal, and especially heal relationships,” writes Melanie Randall, a restorative justice advocate whose research has been vital in the construction of youth courts across Pennsylvania.

The typical juror selection process in America tries to ensure that a jury has no bias towards either the prosecution or the defense by randomly selecting community members and summoning them for service. Potential jurors undergo voir dire, in which attorneys from both parties pose questions to determine if they are fair or impartial. In youth courts, however, this process is thrown out the window. Many volunteers are former defendants themselves, as volunteering for youth court can reduce the number of community service hours that a defendant must complete. Jamie is now the current case coordinator at the Anchorage Youth Court. He frequently tells the students that getting involved with the program “turned his life around.”

Although youth judges are provided sentencing guidelines, the task of assigning a punishment to their peers can still be daunting. “I usually follow the guidelines for sentencing hours, but there is always something in the back of my mind wondering whether the hours are too much,” said Lila White, a high school student who is a member of the Anchorage Youth Court Board of Directors. Anna Kardashyan, another student on the Board of Directors, expressed a similar sentiment, but also indicated that the adult legal adviser can be a reassuring resource. “Whenever I am in doubt, or I feel like I misjudged or gave too harsh a sentence, I consult with the youth court adviser.” While traditional juries can take hours—or even days—to deliberate after hearing a case, it takes only 20 minutes on average to determine a sentence at the Anchorage Youth Court, according to Thibault.

Most states do not formally endorse youth courts, which means that there are very few laws governing how they operate. “Individual youth courts are typically the creation of local communities, resulting in diverse structure, operations, caseloads, and characteristics,” according to a report from the American Bar Association and the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Given this lack of standardization, the existence of youth courts in a particular county or city depends solely on whether local officials choose to establish these courts with their allotted state budget. Alaska is the only state with any laws concerning sentencing guidelines for youth courts.

“About half the states have some sort of law on the books, but nothing very substantive that provides guidelines,” said Gregg Volz, a public interest lawyer in Pennsylvania who has been training students, teachers, and administrative staff to run youth courts for 15 years. According to Volz, most of the existing laws around youth courts deal with funding. But this lack of binding federal and state oversight poses an equity problem: How can a state justify offering a youth court trial to Defendant A and not to Defendant B solely because youth courts do not operate in Defendant B’s county? “Given the current political divide in the United States, I have a hard time imagining how federal oversight would work even if states welcomed it,” said Volz.

In 2019, the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s Advisory Committee released a report “on the Use and Effect of Youth Courts in
Pennsylvania’s Education and Juvenile Justice Systems.” “Youth courts have the potential to play a vital role in both preventing behavioral problems from worsening as well as diverting youthful offenders from the juvenile justice system, so that one impetuous bad decision does not permanently alter a child’s future.” The committee provided an additional caveat: While recognizing that “numerous benefits have been anecdotally attributed to youth courts,” the committee also noted that more data must be gathered “to empirically validate these claims.”

Nevertheless, advocates for youth courts cite their greater potential for restorative justice compared to the typical juvenile justice system. “When viewed from a restorative lens, crime is a violation of people and relationships—the relationships between the offender and his or her family, friends, victims, and the community, as opposed to merely an act against the state,” writes Tracy Godwin for the National Youth Court Center. “It is safe to say that no teen court is fully restorative in nature, and may never be, due to some of the practices and philosophies that define a teen court. However, programs can definitely be more restorative than they are currently.”

“After my sentencing, I promised myself I would change and never commit a crime again. At the time I had an understanding that juvenile detention led to a revolving door of incarceration and limited opportunities. The Anchorage Youth Court was able to save me from living that life,” said Jamie, the Case Coordinator at the AYC. “Widely implemented, youth courts can systematically change a juvenile discipline system that led to the school-to-prison pipeline,” said Pennsylvania Bar Association Pro-Bono Coordinator David Keller Trevaskis. “Two words—school and prison—that should never be points on a path we accept.”

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