Instead of getting in trouble with the police, North Brooklyn teenagers can now get in trouble with each other. The new Greenpoint youth court program, modeled after existing youth courts in Brooklyn and Staten Island, will provide actual trials for delinquent teens by their teenage peers.
Once the teenage defendant, or the “referent,” commits an infraction, his school or the 94th precinct youth officer will refer him to the youth court. The youth court will work just like an actual court, except it will deal with minor offences such as truancy, graffiti and fist-fighting, deciding what is a fair sanction rather than whether the defendant is guilty or not. In order to stand trial, the referent must first plead guilty and a lawyer, a boy or a girl his age, will be appointed to negotiate lighter sanctions from the judge and jury, who ultimately decide the punishment. The lawyer, prosecutor, the jury and the judge will all be high school students.
“It’s just like adult court but shrunk down to kid size,” said 94th precinct Community Affairs Officer Carlos Ortiz.
Penalties include things like writing a letter of apology or community service. The referent’s parents are heavily involved in the process, making the ultimate decision of whether the teen should go to trial or not.
The program is currently in its very early stage, providing classes to train the future judges, lawyers, persecutors and jury. After 40 hours of training the class will take the “bar exam” after which 15 kids will be chosen for the annual youth court. The kids who will be “working in the court” will be paid a small stipend.
About 30 teenagers from local schools, mostly aspiring lawyers, signed up for the training sessions in hopes of getting to know the inner workings of the legal system.
High school seniors Patricia Huertero, 17, and Jessica Garcia, 17, want to pursue law careers in the future. They signed up for the program to get a better insight into the field.
“The program gives me a better way of understanding [the legal process,]” Garcia said. “I learn things here that you figure wouldn’t even happen.”
The classes, and eventually the youth court trials, take place in a classroom at the Polish and Slavic Center on Java Street. Trainers from the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center teach classes under the supervision of Community Affairs officers from the 94th precinct. One of the class instructors, Eleanor Anderson, said that although they are not yet 100 per cent sure about how the youth court will look, there are plans to install a raised stand for the judge and a separate jury box. She also mentioned that, because the court is open to the public, more seating must be provided.
According to the National Association of Youth Courts website there are currently 1,255 youth court programs operating in 49 states and Washington D.C., and they are continuously expanding. In New York City, youth courts have shown significant rates of success in Red Hook, Crown Heights, Staten Island and Harlem.
Inspired by the positive outcomes of operating youth courts in the area, Assemblyman Joseph Lentol secured funding from New York City and founded one in Greenpoint, with the help of the 94th precinct and the Center for Court Innovation (CCI). CCI is a non-profit organization that works through independent research to aid courts and criminal justice agencies in reducing crime and improving public trust in the justice system. CCI is behind the operating youth courts in New York City.
Lentol said the program is a way to learn about the justice system from the ground up, rather than learning in school, from television or through more serious confrontations with the law, said Lentol.
“The youth court is a real eye-opener for kids,” said Lentol. “It will make the kids better citizens and give them a better understanding of justice.”
In fact, Amy Ellenbogen, the director of the Crown Heights Community Mediation Center, said many of the referents, or kids who have been defendants at the youth courts, come back the following year after their infraction and participate as jury, lawyers or judges, and generally stay out of trouble.
The new program is based on a previous unsuccessful attempt at a youth court. Last year Lentol and the 94th precinct tried to institute a youth court, but without the involvement of CCI. The kids quickly lost interest since the program, taught by police, consisted exclusively of studying and learning rather than hands-on activity.
Ortiz hopes the program will improve the community. Rather than getting suspended, (often considered to be something of a short vacation) the kids will be doing something positive to benefit the community. An added benefit of the youth court is that it will alleviate some of the burden from police officers, who will now be able to focus on more serious crimes.
Judge Abraham G. Gerges of Kings County Supreme Court said the program is very beneficial for Greenpoint. He finds it effective because it instills respect for the justice system in young people.
“Someone their own age can often be tougher in their judgment” said Gerges. “There is always more respect between a young person and his peers.”