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Youth Courts: A National Youth Justice Movement. (CT Feature).

Youth courts, also called teen courts, are a rapidly expanding voluntary alternative to the juvenile justice system for young people who have committed their first misdemeanors and/or offenses. Youth courts strive to promote in juveniles feelings of self-esteem and the desire for self-improvement, and to foster a healthy attitude toward rules and authority. Youth courts also offer civic opportunities for young people to become volunteer members of the court. Youth courts are operated by schools, police departments, probation departments, juvenile and family courts, and nonprofit organizations. In most cases, youth courts operate as a joint venture among several agencies. The most successful courts are those that are community-based and include participation from a wide range of organizations and agencies within that community.

Youth court proceedings include juvenile offenders and youths who volunteer to be jurors and members of the court, often in the roles of judge, prosecutor, defender, clerk/bailiff and jury foreperson. Sentencing is designed to hold youths accountable within the context of the recognition that peer pressure exerts a powerful influence on adolescent behavior. Cases generally are referred by judges, police and probation officials, and schools to adult coordinators who oversee the program. Typical cases that may be heard in a youth court include larceny, criminal mischief, vandalism, minor assault, possession of alcohol, minor drug offenses and truancy.

Youth courts provide communities with an opportunity to provide immediate consequences for first-time youthful offenders, while providing a peer-operated sentencing mechanism that constructively allows young people to take responsibility, be held accountable and make restitution for committing crimes. Additionally, while providing constructive consequences for juvenile offenders, youth courts offer a civic opportunity for other young people in the community who want to actively participate in the community decision-making processes for dealing with juvenile delinquency. As a result, they gain hands-on knowledge of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. A critical aspect of the program is that youth courts allow peers to determine the appropriate sentencing for other youths. If peer pressure contributes to juvenile delinquency, some experts believe that it can be redirected to become a force that leads juveniles into lawabiding behavior, according to the Federal Probation article, "Teen Court: Juvenile Ju stice for the 21st Century?"

Youth court programs have been in existence for more than 25 years, but recently, they have increasingly become a fixture in many communities. In 1994, there were only 78 youth court programs operating in the United States. Currently, there are more than 825 towns and cities operating youth court programs nationwide and approximately 100 additional youth court programs that now are in developmental stages. Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey and Rhode Island are the only states that do not have youth courts. Most of the youth court programs are grassroots community efforts, which reflects the fact that youth courts are increasingly seen as an effective means for holding youths accountable for delinquent and criminal behaviors within the community.

The national youth court movement across America is offering teenagers an opportunity like none other. More than 250,000 youths have participated as both offenders and volunteers in youth courts during recent years, according to a 2001 survey conducted by the National Youth Court Center. By all indications, officials only see this number increasing at a rate consistent with the rapid establishment of youth courts.

New York's Colonie Youth Court

One well-known program in the United States is the Colonie Youth Court located in the town of Colonie in Albany, N.Y. Colonie is the largest municipality in the Capital District of New York. The Colonie Youth Court was established in 1993, as a nonprofit corporation. Nationally, there are four recognized models of youth courts: Adult Judge, Youth Judge, Peer Jury and Tribunal Model. The Colonie Youth Court operates as the Youth Judge Model, which means youths not only act as members of the jury, but also as the judge, attorneys and clerk/bailiff.

Since 1995, the Colonie Youth Court has adjudicated more than 650 juvenile cases for disposition and has a 99.5 percent successful completion rate. In 1996, the program, which involves more than 500 youths who volunteer to serve as judges, defenders, prosecutors, clerks and jurors per year, was selected to serve as the model for an additional 30 youth court programs in New York. The program is overseen by a volunteer board of directors that includes members from the Town of Colonie Police Department and Albany County Probation Department, local schools and the U.S. attorney's office for the Northern District of New York.

The program operates on a $60,000 annual budget and includes a full-time program director and a part-time community service coordinator. The budget is provided through grants by the state and county bar associations, New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and the Administration for Children, Youth and Families, and the local municipality. The Colonie Youth Court was established as a demonstration program with state formula funds from the U.S. Justice Department's Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP).

What Happens in Court?

Colonie Youth Court Inc. is a voluntary alternative to the criminal justice system for young people who have committed crimes or offenses. The goal of the Colonie Youth Court is to intervene in early anti-social, delinquent and criminal behaviors, and to reduce the incidence and prevent the escalation of such behaviors. In youth court, a youth who has admitted guilt to a crime or offense appears for a sentencing hearing before a jury of his or her peers. The jury is presented with evidence relevant to sentencing, and then deliberates and passes sentence. Sentences, which stress rehabilitative goals, typically include community service and counseling.

Who Participates?

Youth court proceedings often involve youth volunteers who serve as jurors and members of the court. Typically, each of the volunteers is younger than 18, and an adult serves as coordinator. The offender must complete the sentence imposed by the jury and, in addition, must agree to serve as a juror on the case of another juvenile offender as the final two hours of community service. The remaining jurors are drawn from a pool of young people who wish to volunteer. Jurors do not take a course of instruction. Rather, they often hear and see evidence, listen to the judge's instructions, retire and deliberate in private, and agree on a sentence.

Members of the Colonie Youth Court consist of high school students who have successfully completed eight weeks of a youth court membership training program. Areas of instruction include an overview of the criminal and juvenile justice systems, causes of crime and delinquency, goals of sentencing, penal law and operation of youth courts. The training program concludes with mock hearings to prepare members for participation in youth court proceedings. Colonie Youth Court members assume five roles on a rotating basis:

* Judge: Presides over the sentencing hearing, explains criminal charges to the jury, instructs the jury on what evidence and factors to consider in determining a sentence, and sentences the offender in accordance with the jury's verdict.

* Prosecutor: Represents the interests of the community, investigates the circumstances of the offense and background of the offender, presents evidence at the sentencing hearing and makes a sentencing recommendation to the jury.

* Defender: Represents the interests of the offender, investigates the circumstances of the offense and background of the offender, presents evidence at the sentencing hearing, including mitigating circumstances, and makes a sentencing recommendation to the jury.

* Clerk/Bailiff Maintains accurate records, ensures smooth operation of court proceedings and administers oaths.

* Jury Foreperson: Leads jury deliberations, ensures participation of all jurors and that all appropriate sentencing factors are addressed, mediates disputes among jurors, calls for a vote during deliberations and announces the verdict.

Volunteer youth members who serve in these youth court roles gain valuable knowledge and skills that strengthen their ability to become responsible citizens. As a result of their participation in youth court, these youths often have improved articulation, and social and application skills. Volunteer service in youth court is increasingly being seen as an opportune area when schools require youths to complete a particular number of community service hours for high school graduation. As a result of the many benefits youths gain through volunteer participation in youth court, some schools provide a half semester of high school social studies credit for two consecutive years of participation.

Juvenile offenders of the Colonie Youth Court are required to meet the criteria to be eligible for the program. Offenders must be younger than 18, admit guilt and have committed their first misdemeanors and/or violations. The final component of their community service -- serving as jurors on a subsequent case -- allows for positive participation by offenders in the criminal justice system. These offenders gain valuable lessons by accepting responsibility for their actions by participating in community service projects and educational classes, and by having their peers send a strong message that they displayed poor judgment.

Volunteer youth jurors of the Colonie Youth Court are young people in grades seven to 12 who wish to volunteer on a jury and decide the punishment of an offender. Registered jurors are not required to complete the youth court membership training program that members must complete. Instead, each juror is randomly selected from a pool of 400 to 450 jurors to participate in a hearing.

Youth Court Cases

Cases appropriate for youth court generally are referred by judges, police, probation officials and school personnel to the youth court coordinator, who accepts cases meeting established criteria. Youth court programs accept a wide range of cases for disposition. Determining the types of cases a youth court will handle is the decision of the program organizers in collaboration with the local school, court, and police and probation departments. Most cases handled in youth court include violations and misdemeanors, and some nonviolent felonies. Typically, juvenile offenders are younger than 18.

Cases that may be handled in youth court include:

* Shoplifting/theft;

* Alcohol possession;

* Criminal mischief;

* Vandalism/property damage;

* Possession of small amounts of marijuana;

* Traffic offenses;

* Disorderly conduct; and

* Other offenses deemed appropriate.

Cases not traditionally considered for youth court include:

* Sex offenses;

* Violent crimes;

* Driving under the influence of alcohol; and

* Distribution and/or felony possession of narcotics.


Sentences vary for each youth court. Community resources, program development, the victim, the offender and the type of crime are several factors that contribute to the sentence that may be imposed. Some youth court programs have a limit on the number of community service hours that can be imposed for a particular crime and others, such as the Colonie Youth Court, do not set a limit. Some programs similar to Colonie Youth Court operate their own community service programs during the evenings and on Saturdays, while other programs use existing community service agencies for monitoring completion of assigned community service hours. Because youth courts handle cases of youths at young ages, this also must be taken into consideration when designing youth courts' community service programs.

Typical community service sentences imposed in youth court include:

* Community service hours (typically between 20 and 50 hours);

* Letters of apology;

* Essays;

* Youth court jury duty;

* Restitution; and

* Educational awareness classes.

The jury cannot sentence youths to a detention facility or jail.

Obtained Benefits and Waived Rights

By agreeing to proceed in the Colonie Youth Court, offenders obtain certain benefits and waive certain rights that would otherwise apply in the criminal and juvenile justice systems. Benefits include receiving a decision by a jury of peers aimed at assisting youths in ending criminal conduct and participating positively in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, rather than being the object of those systems. Rights waived in youth court may include the right to an attorney, to a trial for determination of guilt and to request closed proceedings for youths under 16.

Operating Budget

Youth court programs are one of the least expensive intervention and prevention programs to operate. The reason for this is the large number of volunteer youths and adults who assist in the operation of these youth courts. Most youth court programs employ one full-time or parttime employee. Some youth courts can operate on a budget of $10,000, while another may have a budget of $75,000, according to the National Youth Court Center.

Factors that contribute to the size of a youth court's budget include:

* Jurisdiction size;

* Crime rates in the community;

* Availability of other diversion programs for first-time offenders;

* Whether the youth court operates its own community service program;

* Whether the program is operated by a school, a municipality or a nonprofit organization; and

* How often the court will convene and the estimated number of cases to be handled.

With support and collaboration from the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration, OJJDP established the National Youth Court Center in 1999.

The National Youth Court Center is operated by the American Probation and Parole Association and three affiliated agencies, including the American Bar Association, the Constitutional Rights Foundation and Street Law Inc. The center's primary goal is to support the national infrastructure of youth courts through the development of technical assistance resources and training to establish or enhance youth court programs.

Scott B. Peterson is a program officer with the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. He is former director of the Colonie Youth Court and former director of Youth Courts of the Capital District Inc. Peterson may be contacted at (202) 616-2368; e-mail: Michael J. Elmendorf II is special assistant to New York Gov. George E. Pataki. He was a founder of Colonie Youth Court and serves as executive vice president of Colonie Youth Court Inc. Elmendorf also is a member and acting chairman of the New York State Juvenile Justice Advisory Group.


Godwin, T.M., M.E. Heward and T. Spina. 2000. National youth court guidelines. Lexington, Ky: American Probation and Parole Association, National Youth Court Center.

Lockart, P., W. Pericak and S. Peterson. 1996. Youth court: The Colonie New York experience. Journal for Juvenile Justice and Detention Services, 11(2):79-82.

Spina, T. and D.R. Homer, 1994. Youth court training manual. Youth courts of the Capital District Inc. Latham, N.Y.

Williamson, Deborah, Michelle Chalk and Paul Knepper, 1992. Teen court: Juvenile justice for the 21st century? Federal Probation, 54(June):54-58.
Who Administers Teen Court

Nonprofit 28%
Juvenile/Municipal Court 16%
Law Enforcement 15%
City/County Government 13%
Probation 13%
Schools 5%
Other 10%

Source: National Youth Court Center (as of June 2001)

Note: Table made from pie chart
COPYRIGHT 2001 American Correctional Association, Inc.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
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Author:Peterson, Scott B.; Elmendorf, Michael J. II
Publication:Corrections Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 1, 2001
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