It’s a familiar courtroom scene: An advocate scribbling on a notepad prepares her closing statement. A judge presides, pounding her gavel to bring the hearing to order. She turns to the offender, a young man being tried for assault, and asks,
“Do you swear to tell the truth?”
“Yes,” he replies.
This is when things start to look different from a traditional courtroom. A juror stands, thanks him for attending, and says, “We just want to let you know we’re not here to judge you or criticize you.”
The juror, named Milagros, is a high school student. Everyone participating– judge, jury, advocate, clerk and offender – is under 18. At the Harlem Youth Court, kids who have committed low-level offenses can avoid formal prosecution and instead tell their side of a story to a jury of their peers.
The court, now beginning its tenth year, is one of six youth courts in New York City, with a seventh coming soon in Queens. Funded by a mix of government and private grants, the group holds hearings Monday and Wednesday evenings at the Elmendorf Reformed Church in East Harlem.
The youth court will only take a case if the offender admits guilt; the facts are determined beforehand. The goal is for young offenders to reflect on their actions and “think about how these issues affect the community,” says Sonia Balaram, the Harlem Youth Court coordinator. “In order to really fix the problem, you need to fix the relationships.”
To be tried in Harlem Youth Court, the offender must be referred by an outside party such as a school, a probation officer, or the police. Offenses are as minor as truancy or as serious as assault. Most cases involve fighting, shoplifting or skipping school, Balaram says, though recently, she has seen a rise in bullying.
Traditional courts don’t attempt to understand why young people commit crimes, she explains. To consider the bigger picture, the youth court jury asks questions like “What are your goals?” or “Would you describe yourself as a leader or a follower?”
“We’re not judging them by their case, we’re judging them by who they are,” says high school senior Cierra. (Youth Court policy restricts the release of members’ last names.)
The youth court alters traditional courtroom language, too. Offenders aren’t called “defendants,” they’re “respondents.” The defense attorney who interviews the respondent before presenting the case becomes a “youth advocate” and a “community advocate” takes the place of a prosecutor.
When sentenced, respondents must comply with “sanctions” which are “more about reflecting, critical thinking and giving back to the community,” Balaram says. Sanctons might include community service or letters of apology. One respondent, interested in popular music, was asked to write a rap song about what she’d learned.
“We want them to benefit from it,” says high school junior Shuba, another youth court member. “Our goal is to get them engaged.”
Compared to the sentences juvenile offenders receive in traditional courts, the sanctions are “tough,” said Joan Stroud, an officer from the city probation department, after attending a hearing. However, “the sanctions that they give are fair,” Stroud said; she plans to refer young offenders to the youth court in the future.
After the hearing, Balaram monitors the sanctions; last year, she reports, 90 percent of respondents completed their sanctions. Respondents who don’t are often referred to other social services. “It’s not a magic wand that will fix everything,” Balaram says.
Do such programs work? Research on youth courts’ effectiveness has been limited. In 2002, an Urban Institute Justice Policy Center study, “The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders,” compared the effectiveness of youth courts in four states. “There are many arguments that could be, and have been, made to support the effectiveness of teen court, but little sound evidence exists that would allow researchers to judge the validity of each argument,” the report concluded.
Of four youth courts that participated in the study, two were shown to be far more effective than traditional juvenile courts in reducing recidivism; the other two showed similar, though less statistically significant, results.
“The findings for our study are certainly promising,” said co-author Janeen Buck-Willison, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute. While the report didn’t definitively conclude that youth courts reduce recidivism, Buck-Willison said respondents surveyed after participating were generally positive . Most were glad they’d attended youth court instead of a traditional court, and 80 percent felt they received fair treatment.
For youth court members, the benefits are clearer. This year, the Harlem Youth Court received a record 180 applications for its 20 positions. Before hearings began in September, members received six weeks’ training, observing New York Criminal Court cases, visiting the State Supreme Court, receiving sensitivity training from social workers and meeting with police officers in local precincts. During hearings, members grow comfortable with public speaking and facilitating discussions. Many want to seek criminal justice careers.
“It makes me feel like in the future, I have to do something with law,” says Shuba.
“It’s helping me figure out where I want to go in life,” adds Cierra.
Balaram writes letters of recommendation for members applying to college and even edits their application essays. Christian, a second-year youth court member, often visits Balaram’s office after school to discuss his plans after graduation. “We really try to make sure Youth Court members succeed,” she says.
Being a youth court member can be challenging. “It’s nothing like I imagined,” says Shuba, “It’s kind of scary sometimes.” Facing respondents’ parents during the hearings can be difficult, she explains.
However, members say they rise to the challenges. “It actually feels great,” says Cierra, “I feel like it’s a lot on my plate, but at the same time, it’s worth it.”