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

By Peterson, Scott B.; Elmendorf, Michael J., II | Corrections Today, December 2001 | Go to article overview

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


Peterson, Scott B., Elmendorf, Michael J., II, Corrections Today


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. …

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