Billl Long 4/4/06
A Different Kind of Justice
One of the fastest-growing movements in juvenile law these days is a program known as "Teen Court" or "Peer Court" or "Youth Court." Youth Court, as I will call it, provides an opportunity for juveniles who have confessed their guilt for misdemeanors or lesser felonies to have these offenses expunged from their record in exchange for having their case presented to a jury of their peers, who then decide on "sentence." The sentencing options of the youth jury are limited--they include mandatory participation of the defendant on a future jury, community service, restitution in appropriate cases, apologies, written letters of apology or essays on what the defendant did, or other like penalties. The administrator of the program then oversees the defendant's completion of these tasks.
I happened to learn about my County's (Marion) program, which began about seven years ago, at a "free" lunch today sponsored by the program. Since the invitation to attend prominently mentioned that federal funding for the program had expired (it was funded by a "seed grant" by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention), I was expecting to get a fund-raising pitch. It happened. And, I willingly and even eagerly gave. This essay explains a little about the program and why it, though not "solving" teen crime or possibly even contributing much to lessening it, still deserves our support.
A Word on History
Tha National Youth Court Center has an extensive web site, the weakest part of which is the story of the development of these courts. In addition, a law review article by Julieta Kendall, ["Can it Please the Court? An Analysis of the Teen Court System as an Alternative to the Traditional Juvenile Justice System," 24 Journal of Juvenile Justice 154 (2003-04)], describes some of the scholarly work analyzing these courts, especially the 2002 study comparing recidivism rates for those served by the Youth Courts compared with those served by the traditional Juvenile Department. Suffice it to say for this essay that the idea for Youth Courts, like that for other "populist" legal approaches such as "Street Law" or "Alternative Dispute Resolution," arose out of the late 1960s-early 1970s, where reform of all kinds, and empowerment of traditionally disenfranchised groups, was all the rage. It wasn't until the 1990s, however, that the idea of Youth Courts caught on. As late as 1994 there were no more than about 50 in the country, but now there are estimated to be more than 900 of them. One can either conclude that these courts are doing some good or that there was enough funding around to get them going so that it behooved communities to have them. Or, one can hypothesize that their presence made adults feel good, because it gave them (us) the sense that we were helping youth. In any case, we have to recognize that the growth of these courts corresponded to the time in our history when juvenile crimes for which these courts would hand out sanctions, were skyrocketing while corresponding numbers of serious juvenile felonies decreased dramatically.
Do These Courts Reduce Recidivism?
One of the questions on my mind as I listened to glowing tributes about our Youth Court is whether it "worked" in the sense that it made youth less likely to reoffend. Youth Courts are only open to first-time offenders, and so statistics ought not to be too difficult to come up with. But we apparently have a little problem on that score. In one publication pumping the program a recidivism rate of under 5% was touted, while the glossy brochure talked about a 21% recidivism rate, compared with a 35% rate of those who go to "Juvie." But I think I am not convinced, both because the rates are so dramatically different in the two sources and because I am not convinced but that those who might go to Youth Court might already be a rather "self-selected" group that really do care about getting their lives together.
For example, when I taught at Reed College in Portland I was always impressed by the fact that we received comparatively few applications for admission relative to schools with which we compared ourselves. Nevertheless, the quality of our student body was consistently as high as our peers. Why? Because Reed is primarily a "self-select" institution. Kids who go there know what they are getting into. This example informs my thinking when I return to recidivist numbers for our Youth (Teen) Court.
Why I Support Youth Court Anyway
My support for the concept, however, is not dependent on whether the latest statistics show a much lower recidivism rate among kids who come through the Youth Court. My support for it comes out of the same philosophy of why I support Church mission trips. Normally, at least for residents of the West Coast, these mission trips go to some poverty-stricken place in Mexico or Latin America (I went on one with a bunch of Texas veterinarians to Honduras in 1995). In the course of the week or so of the trip you do actually help a few people and you may even build some schools or houses, etc. But the greater beneficiaries of these trips, I am convinced, are those who take the time and effort to go. You see a new culture and people; your eyes are opened in new ways to the world around you; you develop friendships that you never could imagine. Mission trips end up being primarily for those who serve.
So it is with Youth Court. I think the greatest beneficiaries of the system may well be the jurors, the bailiff, the "attorneys" (if our Youth Court permits them) or others who not only figure out what was done and try to learn the reasons for it, but deliberate together on an appropriate sanction for the offender. I think it is very important that young people be given real responsibility in life, whether it is in making decisions, learning to ask questions, learning how to listen to each other and make joint decisions, or simply in showing up on time and listening while others talk. Just as I hypothesized when I was on a community college board of directors (1985-1990) that it would not be too long before we had a President of the US who attended a community college, so it will not be long before someone running for political office will say, 'I developed confidence in public speaking and cooperative decision-making through my experience on a Youth Court jury.'
It will happen, I am convinced. And it is "free" lunches like today which will be a means to help them flourish.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long