Opinion: Youth Court in Bridgeton

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I’m always for trying new approaches in dealing with certain issues. When it comes to juveniles and juvenile justice, one new strategy that I think is worth trying in Cumberland County is that of “youth courts.” I say that, because juvenile crime is something that troubles us all, but the future of these young people is something that troubles me more.

Youth Court seems to work well in other jurisdictions. Pennsylvania has a pretty robust program as does the City of Newark NJ. The basic idea behind youth court is that young people, ages 10 to 18 years old who commit minor offenses, appear before their peers serving in the various roles of judge, jury, and officers of the court as might be found in the adult system.

These peers, serving in their respective roles and after some training, are tasked with determining an appropriate response or intervention for a particular circumstance or offense. The offense itself could be anything from a curfew violation or an act of vandalism, to truancy or some type of disorderly person’s offense. 

Why might youth court be important for dealing with these early and relatively minor offenses? Because these offenses are usually the first point of contact a young person has with “the system.” And if you’ve ever been involved with the justice system, it’s got a stickiness to it that clings to a person and its tentacles are many—court costs, fines, loss of driving privileges, employment troubles, an inability to get licenses, college loans, and assistance. Once someone is part of the system, it can start youth on a downward trajectory that can impact the remainder of their lives.

The essence of the youth court program is restorative in nature (as opposed to punitive) and it is a mechanism for a formal teaching moment in the lives of all involved. The major lesson is about accountability and responsibility and the idea that actions have consequences. This sounds like an obvious thing to adults, but not so much for the teenage mind. The process asks those involved to own their behavior and the impact of their actions.

The “restorative” piece is about making repair, whether through community service, restitution, formal apologies, or some combination of these things. This repair or restoration is specific to the harm done, but it is an essential lesson for young people—part of paying their debt to society before any future incurred debts can only be repaid in the form of a prison sentence.

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In Pennsylvania, for example, students are trained by lawyers, law students, law and criminal justice professionals and teachers to perform all the various court roles and functions. The idea here is that positive peer pressure likely has far more weight than pressure from adults or “the system.” 

In Newark’s program, before a youth court hearing, the referred youth or “respondent,” meets with a “Youth Advocate,” who is a young person representing the respondent throughout the case (think defense lawyer). During the hearing, the respondent describes what happened and is questioned by members of the jury. But unlike adult court, the purpose of the jury’s questions is not just to learn more information, but to better understand what led to the incident, how the respondent feels about what they’ve done, and to prompt the respondent to reflect on his or her behavior.

After considering everything, the jury decides on a fair and appropriate sanction that holds the young person accountable, restores harm done to the community, and helps the young person to avoid future trouble. Youth court staff monitors the completion of sanctions and then reports back to the referral source (i.e. police, municipal court, schools, etc.). 

The program shows positive results similar to our Station House Adjustments organized by local clergy a few years ago. The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) and several partners conducted a nationwide review of youth court programs several years back and confirmed the benefits of this approach—a drop in recidivism, less school problems and dropout rates, and a new culture of respect for community and justice.

For these reasons, I think youth court, at least a pilot project in Bridgeton, could be a part of the work currently being done by the Cumberland County Positive Youth Coalition (CCPYC) and the best place to start. If it works here, then expand it county-wide. It will involve our municipal courts, police, and schools, but it’s worth the effort. 

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