Q&A: Starting a Youth Court

One of the fastest-growing juvenile justice programs in the United States, youth (or teen) courts are an attractive option for communities struggling with youth delinquency. The courts promote youth development for both teen participants and offenders; are generally inexpensive to run; divert first-time offenders from the traditional juvenile justice system; and seem to be more effective in discouraging repeat offenses than regular juvenile court. Youth courts handle low-level offenses such as shoplifting, possession of alcohol or marijuana, vandalism, trespassing, truancy, disorderly conduct, and sometimes traffic violations; violent assaults and sexual offenses are not considered. Court models vary, but in the most popular an adult plays the role of judge while teenagers volunteer as attorneys and jurors. More than half of all youth courts operate within local law enforcement and court systems; about a quarter are run by community-based organizations that coordinate with local juvenile justice programs. A relatively small number – perhaps 10% – are based in schools.

Tracy Mullins is director of the National Youth Court Center, a program of the American Probation and Parole Association. The NYCC provides training, technical assistance and materials to new and existing youth courts. We interviewed Mullins in 2003.

Q: Youth courts are clearly a trend. What’s their history?
A: We don’t really know exactly where and when the first one began. There are conflicting reports in the literature about it. We know there have been programs in existence from the late ’60s and early ’70s. Programs that got implemented up through the early ’90s didn’t have a lot of information – people were still hearing about one or two programs and modeling themselves after those. Now we know there are lots of models out there.

Q: And the growth has been phenomenal, hasn’t it?
A: When we started working on this project, in 1994, there were 78 teen courts that we knew of in existence. Today we’ve got to close to 880 in our database, so that’s a huge increase in less than 10 years. Part of that is that there are more resources available and people are hearing more about it. Prior to that, these programs were just out in their own communities and miles apart, and they didn’t network and share information. And that is something that has changed radically with the federal government’s support.

Q: But what need do they satisfy? After all, we already have a juvenile justice system.
A: I think there’s always a need in a lot of jurisdictions to find alternative ways to deal with minor offenders, kids who are first-time offenders involved in less serious crimes, in order to free up the system for more serious offenders. What makes youth courts attractive as an alternative is that they have the benefit of turning the tables, and rather than having an adult say, ‘We don’t like what you did and here’s what you’re going to do to make up for it,’ you have kids say it. It can be powerful for kids to have other young people say, ‘Drinking at that party was not right. Shoplifting that CD was not right.’

The other thing that teen courts provide that’s good for the system as whole, is that you’ve got the kids in trouble coming through as offenders, but you’ve also got other kids coming through who are judges, jurors, lawyers, bailiffs, who are dealing with the system in a very real way – it’s not mock, it’s real. That’s a really responsible position we place the teens in, and they rise to the occasion quite well.

Q: And the difference between the teen offenders and teen lawyers isn’t always so great, is it?
A: Some of the kids who volunteer for youth courts may not have gotten in trouble before, but that doesn’t mean they’re not out there experimenting with some of these behaviors, so there’s a whole prevention aspect. It’s hard to quantify, but over the years it’s been interesting to me to hear the stories kids tell. One girl in North Carolina said that before teen court came to her county, she and her friends would go out every Saturday night and shoplift; it’s just what they did. Then teen court came to her school, and she started out as a juror, and then moved on to be an attorney. Though she’d never gotten caught for shoplifting, she saw other kids who were shoplifting coming through, and she’d be on their jury, or their prosecuting attorney, and she started feeling like a hypocrite. Eventually she stopped shoplifting; she stopped hanging out with those friends.

Q: But you’ve no doubt heard lots of reasons for not starting youth courts.
A: One of the biggest challenges new and existing programs are facing is funding. With the economy being what it is, people are struggling with what to cut, and sometimes it’s youth courts. But they’re not traditionally very expensive programs to manage. Some youth courts operate on very little monetary resources; they rely heavily on in-kind donations and voluntary support, even in the administration of the programs. And there is still sometimes that initial hesitancy on the part of the adults in the community that kids won’t take it seriously. But most times there are enough other people who think the kids will, and enough chances to see a youth court in action, that the naysayers change their tune.

Q: Do the courts tap into the local legal community?
A: Pro-bono attorneys aren’t always involved, but it’s helpful if they are. The model that uses the adult judge, most of the time it’s not a real judge, but a lawyer. Programs can also go a step further, and that’s having adult attorneys as mentors. In that model, a couple of lawyers will come to a hearing and observe, and provide feedback to the (teen) attorneys after the hearing about how they could have done better. The teens can’t learn it all in pre-service trainings; it takes time and experience.

Q: A common misconception is that youth courts actually determine guilt, but that’s not the case, is it?
A: Ninty-two percent of youth courts require offenders to plead guilty, or admit to the charges or plead no contest. So in those programs, the purpose is not to determine guilt or innocence, but to decide on appropriate sentencing. The fact is that if you’re going to go the route of pleading guilty or not guilty, it bumps up your training requirements and the legal issues you’ll have to cover; it makes it more complicated in how the program’s run and monitored. You then have to really rely extensively on your legal community for support. And there are people in the field who feel that we don’t want this to be adversarial, that’s not what we’re after. We want the kids to acknowledge their guilt. If they really feel they aren’t guilty, they need to go through the regular system.

Q: And the offenses are minor.
A: Locally programs get to decide what they want to do. But our stance is youth court is more appropriate for misdemeanor-level, first offenses. There are kids who come with prior offenses, and that needs to be looked at on a case-by-case basis to see if the offenders can benefit from the program.

Q: Are teen jurors reluctant to crack down on their peers?
A: Most of the time what the kids come up with is a lot more harsh than what offenders would have gotten if they’d gone through the regular system. A lot of times, in the regular system, nothing happens, or they might get a letter saying ‘don’t do this again,’ or a few hours of community service. In youth court, they might get a combination of community service hours, teen court jury terms, educational classes, an oral or written apology to the victim, or possibly an essay. Some places might add things onto that, like restitution, chores at home, or a tour of the local jail. The goal is not to load the courts up with sentencing options, but to teach kids how to look at circumstances and determine a sentence that will help offenders understand what they did, why it was wrong, and who they harmed. Because a lot of time they only see that they’ve been hurt. We want them to see how their offense has affected the victim, the community as whole, the school, or whoever.

Q: Youth courts are common in some states, but New England has hardly any. Since these are created and operated locally, do state policies make a difference?
A: Twenty-two or 24 states have legislation that authorizes youth courts; you don’t have to have it, but if you do, any jurisdiction that wants to start one has the go-ahead to do it. New York State has the most teen courts. They don’t have legislation that authorizes it, but they have had a lot of state support through the Division of Criminal Justice Services. They had initial support, and they had someone at the state level to advocate for the concept. So in states like New York, the number of programs grow quicker. Rather than taking 30 years to get 90 programs, you can move much faster.