Teens take the gavel to judge peers

"Order in my court!" snaps the judge, all of 15 years old. "Everybody, stop flying around in my court!" She raps her gavel on the bench. The rambunctious jurors stop flirting with one another, and peace is restored.

It's a typical evening at the Harlem Youth Court, where neighborhood teenagers act as judge, jury, and lawyers at trials of peers.

This is not mere playacting. The participants hear real cases of teenaged defendants referred by the police or school administrators, and mete out sentences that include community service, anger management classes, and tutoring.

"It turns peer pressure on its head," says Greg Berman, director of the Center for Court Innovation, the nonprofit organization that runs the court. "We typically think of peer pressure as a force that leads our kids astray, but here we've created a coterie of kids that are pushing their peers in a positive, law-abiding direction."

Youth courts - also called teen courts - have experienced a growth spurt in the United States. Today, more than 950 courts operate across the country, up from 78 youth courts in 1993.

The US Department of Justice has allocated over $3 million in the past five years to support the National Youth Court Center, which provides training, technical assistance, and resource materials to youth courts around the country.

Teens often ignored by courts

The Harlem Youth Court, one of three youth courts in New York City, was established in 1999, when organizers noticed that low-level juvenile offenders were often ignored by the justice system. Previously, when a juvenile was arrested for a misdemeanor such as truancy, graffiti, or fighting, police used a "youth delinquency" card.

"Youth delinquency cards are an outdated mode of ticketing 'bad' children," says Danielle Sered, the Youth Court coordinator. "There are no real repercussions. Their parents just get a letter months and months later."

Now, the parents of those young offenders get a phone call explaining the Youth Court option: In return for the teenagers voluntary participation as defendants, the police add positive notes to their files indicating their cooperation.

"The parents tend to be very excited," says Ms. Sered, "because it's a way for their kids to feel the consequences of their actions, without getting them involved in a punitive system of justice."

The court members who act as judge, jury, and counsel are recruited from surrounding schools, or hear about the after-school program through word of mouth.

In some cases the court setting itself - with police officers and metal detectors at the doors - is enough to scare offenders straight, says Professor Faith Samples-Smart, a sociologist at Columbia University's Center for Violence Research and Prevention, who evaluated the Youth Court's impact on defendants in 1999 and 2000.

The defendants give the court high marks on fairness, says Ms. Samples-Smart, because they feel the teens who judge them understand the pressures they face.

"Talking to their peers is much easier than talking to an adult who might not remember what it was like to be a kid, and who doesn't have the patience for this kind of behavior," says Samples-Smart.

The Youth Court members benefit as well, says Sered. In each six-month session, they learn skills such as critical thinking, public speaking, and consensus building. They also develop a new relationship with the criminal justice system.

Many have family members or friends who have stood in court to receive sentences but few ever imagined they could one day be judges themselves.

"It's really powerful for these kids, who typically have such a negative relationship with this institution, to feel a real sense of ownership and pride," says Sered.

Richard Memminger, a member of the Harlem Youth Court member, has cycled through all the courtroom roles, but says he prefers being the defense lawyer.

"I'm their voice inside the courtroom," says the 11th-grader, who's interested in a career as a "lawyer, or a comedian - or a funny lawyer."

Most Saturdays, Richard works on community service projects alongside the defendants from recent court sessions. He says the defendants aren't resentful about giving up part of their weekend.

They take it seriously

"It's not punishment, it's trying to help," he says. "After most people finish community service, they come back as volunteers, and some start training to be on the youth court themselves."

There are no consequences for defendants who don't show up for their community service, tutoring, or other "sanctions." Yet the percentage who do is extraordinarily high: 100 percent in the past quarter, and above 80 percent as a general rule.

Greg Berman says this shows that the defendants take the process seriously. "If you ask any family court judge, they'd be jumping up and down if they got that kind of compliance rate," he says.

And while the jury members may giggle and bounce in their seats at the start of a court session, once the defendant takes the stand they're all business. They know much is at stake, says Sered.

"This may be the only opportunity before the kid is standing before a state judge, who's going to send him away," she says. "They really take that to heart, because a lot of them know what youth court did for them."

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