“I need to be more grateful.” My jaw must have dropped hearing those words from a 17-year-old. How many teenagers say that out loud? But this girl has a different perspective. She’s learned a hard truth.
As a juror on a Youth Court in my area, she and five other students hear criminal cases involving kids their age and then determine the consequences. The goal? Uncovering root causes and giving non-violent, first-time offenders a second chance.
“Most of the kids come from dysfunctional, broken families,” said Izabella, the 17-year-old, whose identity must remain confidential. “Their parents might be divorced….They might’ve been physically or emotionally abused. Their home lives can be awful.”
In her three years as a juror, she’s learned a hard truth: loving and caring parents aren’t a given. Some kids never enjoy the privilege. “I need to be more grateful,” Izabella said. “I have two great parents.”
Until meeting her and attorney Lynn Peterson, who led the effort to establish the Blount County (Tennessee) Youth Court in 2013, I’d never heard of the concept. Created about 25 years ago, more than 1,000 cities and counties nationwide now offer this delinquency prevention/intervention program to first-time offenders.
I’m sharing this story because the program appears to be working and it costs taxpayers nothing. For some traumatized kids, it could be the one program that makes a lasting difference.
A Chance at a Do-Over
The concept is simple.
First-time offenders either enter the Juvenile Court System, or they admit their guilt and let their peers determine a fair sentence. Should they choose Youth Court, their criminal records are expunged, and no one—including the U.S. military which does access juvie records—will ever know the crime happened.
These kids get a chance at a do-over, provided they complete the Youth Court process and fulfill whatever sentence the jurors decide. Consequences include everything from community service, restitution, and skills training, to a written apology to victims.
The goal is helping offenders understand the harm they’ve inflicted, not only to themselves, but to their victims, Lynn said. The aim is to provide skills that lead to better decision making and opportunities to reconnect with families, schools, and communities.
“If you’re connected, you’re less likely to commit again,” Lynn explained.
No Cost to Communities
“More people should know about Youth Court,” said Luke Abbott, an attorney who volunteered as a Youth Court mediator when he attended law school. “It doesn’t cost anyone anything.”
Tax dollars don’t underwrite Youth Court. Donations do. Student jurors, and everyone else involved in the program, volunteer their time when they meet twice per month to hear cases.
The program saves communities in other ways, too.
Kids entering the overburdened Juvenile Court System can cost about nearly $408 per person per day, according to the Justice Policy Institute. Research also shows that 25 to 35 percent of young people who end up in detention don’t finish high school and are 22 to 26 percent more likely to reoffend.
“We have a one-percent recidivism rate,” Lynn said. “Youth Courts work, and they work across the country.”
It Starts With Questions
Why is this working?
“Kids ask the hard questions,” Lynn said.
They learn in training how to get to the root issues. They ask questions about the offenders’ home and school lives, peer pressure, and learning disabilities. Eventually, a clearer picture emerges as to what contributed to the crime and ways to effectively intervene.
Although no one can discuss specific cases, Lynn shared the story of a lonely teenage boy who trespassed on his neighbor’s property and built a fire that eventually consumed a half-acre. His sentence? The boy had to meet with local firefighters who then taught him how to safely start and extinguish a fire.
“This young man had no idea,” Lynn said. “He had no father” or any other adult to teach him.
As with this teenage boy, poor parenting contributes to most juvenile crime, she said. “These kids have had a lousy upbringing,” Luke agreed. And it’s not a racial issue, either. It cuts across all races and socioeconomic conditions. “For the most part, problems begin at home.”
Lessons Izabella Has Learned
Izabella couldn’t agree more.
“In one assault case, we kept asking questions, and the more questions we asked, the more disturbing the details,” she said. “I kept thinking kids really grow up like this…. I need to be more grateful.”
Do you need to be more grateful?