It’s a familiar sight in front of the Nassau Avenue G station: Teens mouthing off to police officers in a way that shocks adults who grew up respecting or, at least, fearing the cops. Whereas previous generations questioned authority, many of today’s youth are challenging it, raising questions about how to discipline kids. Short of locking them up and throwing away the key, is there a solution?
Seeking answers, The Center for Court Innovation launched its first youth court in Red Hook in 1998 (Greenpoint Youth Court (GYC) formed in 2009). The idea behind youth court is to use peer pressure to teach community responsibility to respondents (i.e. kids who have committed low level violations) and to keep them from returning to the system. According to GYC Program Coordinator Beth Broderick, the court will work with over 200 respondents this year, “focusing on accountability and skill-building.” By the end of the year, participants will have completed over 1400 hours of community service, mostly at the 94th Precinct, East River State Park, and the Greenpoint Reformed Church.
Court was in session on Thursday, July 25th, with special guest and program supporter, Assemblyman Joe Lentol, on board for the proceedings. Three cases were on the docket, two for possession of marijuana and one for fighting. Each of the respondents agree to take responsibility for their actions as a prerequisite for their case being heard – the court does not determine innocence or guilt, rather it sanctions and offers guidance to help cut down on repeat offenses.
There are fifteen youth court members at work during a trial. Members take turns as judge, community advocate (prosecutor), youth advocate (defense attorney), bailiff or as one of eleven jurors. After swearing to keep the proceedings secret, shutting down cell phones and spitting out gum, it was time to call the first case. Each respondent entered with a parent and was sworn in by the bailiff. Each advocate took a turn explaining the impact of the crime on the community and handed the case to the jury.
Unlike a typical courtroom, in youth court trials, the jury asks the questions. Now in his second six-month term with the court, Danny usually opens his questioning with a friendly “How ya doin?’” to make respondents “comfortable, to let them know we are there for them and that they don’t have to hold anything back.” Part of the youth court philosophy is that kids feel pressure appearing before other kids. A former respondent himself, Danny said that seeing other kids taking bad behavior seriously acts as a deterrent against repeat offenses. Another jurist, Ayla, chooses to focus her questioning on the incident that got the respondent in trouble. “We try to get them to reflect on what happened and what they could have done differently.”
After completing their interrogation, the jury deliberates to determine the appropriate sanctions for the crime. Danny explained that the jury first asks “What sanctions do you think will help our respondent out the most, so we won’t see him here again committing a crime or in jail?” During questioning the jury asks each respondent about goals and role models and takes the responses under consideration before choosing sanctions.
Once a decision has been reached, by a show of hands vote, the jury comes back. Before reading their decision, the advocates each offer a closing argument and ask the jury to deliver a “fair and beneficial sanction.”
On the 25th, each respondent received community service – youth court stresses the harm the respondent’s actions cause the community and that it must be repaid. They were also assigned to seminars offered by GYC that are geared toward the respondent’s goals and each was given a writing assignment – essays on the effects of smoking, both to their health and to their community, to the two pot smoking respondents and a letter of apology from the fighter to her role model / mom.
Ryan, who is in her third term with the court, thinks just speaking with peers makes a big difference. “[Respondents] benefit from just being able to come here. It lets them reflect on what they did and how they would do it differently.”
To learn more about Greenpoint Youth Court or youth courts in general, visit http://www.courtinnovation.org/project/youth-courts.