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February 13, 2011

Youth Courts: The Positive Power of Intervention

Stephan Campagna -- now 24 and a 2L at Hofstra School of Law -- discussed his experience as a juvenile offender going through youth court at 16

Stephan Campagna -- now 24 and a 2L at Hofstra School of Law -- discussed his experience as a juvenile offender in youth court at 16

For young juvenile offenders, youth courts can be life savers.

Stefan Campagna, now 24, told an audience yesterday at the _ Midyear Meeting in Atlanta about his teenage turnaround after he was sentenced by peers at a youth court trial.  He was 16 at the time, had been accused of 27 felonies and had initially been turned down as a candidate for going to youth court for resolution.

“I was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and 18 [youth court] jury duties,” said Campagna.  “Half way through my jury duty service, I realized I’m either going to be back here as a defendant again, or on the other side.”

Campagna chose the other side.  He finished high school, graduated from college and is now a second year student at Hofstra University School of Law in New York.

For advocates – laypeople and lawyers, alike – who work with youth courts, they say they frequently see examples of the power of a peer-based intervention mechanism in reshaping lives and giving kids a second chance.

“I have eight attorneys that I work with who started out as juvenile offenders,” said Kathleen Self, executive director of Sarasota County Teen Court in Florida.

Self – who is not a lawyer – has been organizing youth courts for nearly 23 years.  She points to some notable differences in recidivism rates when misdemeanors (for comparable offenses) are handled by youth courts.

She said that in Florida – where there are youth courts in 50 of the 67 counties – the recidivism rate is 12 percent for kids who have a first-time misdemeanor resolved in youth courts, and 42 percent for kids who go through the juvenile court system.  Also of note, the average cost for a youth court appearance, per child, is $550, while the cost per child of appearing in juvenile court is $5,400.

“That’s $70 million savings statewide when teen courts divert kids out of the juvenile court system,” said Self.

Youth courts differ significantly from the traditional juvenile justice system in several ways:  youth courts enlist student volunteers who are trained to take on the roles of lawyers and jurors in the court; the youth offender must agree to the peer-decided sentence, which typically involves restorative justice such as community service and victim restitution; and youth courts are considered a means of “primary intervention” so that kids are diverted from ending up in the juvenile justice system later on in life.

According to Jack Levine, program director of the National Association of Youth Courts, a super-majority of youth court cases do not involve the violence or extreme delinquent behavior seen in cases that typically move through juvenile court.  If not for youth courts, most of these less extreme cases would be ignored and not make it to the traditional juvenile justice court system.

“These [youth court] cases don’t necessarily merit incarceration, but they certainly merit attention.  Most young people will experiment and have a brush or two with illegal behavior.  As responsible adults, it’s our responsibility to say, ‘What would work best?’ The youth court option works better in most cases,” said Levine.

Youth courts started back in the 1970s.  By 1990 there were 50 nationwide.  Now, said Levine, there are 1,050 youth courts across the country, and last year, they served 140,000 kids.

Campagna and a fellow 24-year-old will soon be running one of the nation’s newest youth courts in New York’s Nassau County.

For more information about youth courts, visit www.youthcourt.net

Comments (8)

  • *Pingback*
    2:04 PM February 14, 2011
    This Post Referenced in: Tweets that mention Youth Courts: The Positive Power of Intervention – ABANow – ABA Media Relations & Communication Services -- Topsy.com

    ... This post was mentioned on Twitter by AssocProsecutingAtty, DC Youth Court. DC Youth Court said: From ABANow — "Youth Courts: The Positive Power of Intervention" http://fb.me/VbAxExnl ...

  • Lorenn Walker
    2:24 PM February 15, 2011

    Instead of sending juvenile law violators to any kind of court, why aren’t we doing more to divert these kids to non-judicial interventions? Also the “youth court” idea of restorative justice as described in this piece sounds like peer court ordered restitution & community service, which is not restorative justice.

  • *Pingback*
    1:23 PM February 17, 2011
    This Post Referenced in: Youth Diversion Programs Receive National Support « Just Court ADR

    ... can reshape lives regardless of how many encounters with the court system a teen may have had. Stephan Campagna, a teen who benefited from a youth court program in Florida, was accused of 27 felonies. After ...

  • Kris Miner
    4:22 PM February 17, 2011

    As a Restorative Justice advocate and practitioner, the model of trained students taking on roles as formal/adult court is not restorative justice, and directing restitution and community service from that process does not make it “restorative justice”. I am in support of youth development models, second to a consensual, engaging process that addresses the harms, needs and obligations of victim, offenders and the community.

  • Lorenn Walker
    5:00 PM February 17, 2011

    Instead of calling it “restorative justice” could the program instead identify and recognize its “mock trial” (civic education) roots? The youth who are participating in youth court are learning trial skills (not engaging in a “restorative” process). There is research supporting civic education as an effective youth development intervention.

  • Stefan Campagna
    7:32 PM February 28, 2011

    I’d imagine it to be difficult to completely describe the youth court program in a one page article, so I’d advise against assuming that the entirety of what “youth courts are” can be surmised from reading just the above article. There are counseling sessions (group and individual) of all sorts included in almost every child’s sentence, along with educational sessions before almost every jury duty. Even more important (at least from my personal experience) is the time each respondent spends in the jury box listening to other respondents’ stories. This is a time of profound introspect for many of these children, as they realize that their reasons for getting into trouble are all too common and easily prevented by changes in themselves and their influences. It should also be noted that the youth being trained to participate in youth court are volunteers interested in the legal system, and not the juvenile offenders (though some of these offenders develop an interest in the law and come back to volunteer as youth attorneys).

  • "fellow 24-year-old"
    8:06 PM February 28, 2011

    The focus of restorative justice is to repair the involved parties back to their state before the crime was committed. Each restorative justice program is characterized by certain values: 1) Create opportunities for victims, offenders, and community members who want to do so to meet to discuss the crime and its aftermath; 2)Expect offenders to take steps to repair the harm they have caused; 3) Seek to restore victims and offenders to whole, contributing members of society; and 4) Provide opportunities for parties with a stake in a specific crime to participate in its resolution. A Youth Court trial requires the respondent to be present and allows all others involved or concerned to participate in the process and discuss the crime. The sentences handed out give the respondent to repair the harm that they have caused. These sentences are mandatory. If the juvenile does not complete the sentence, then the case will be put back on the criminal court docket. With any crime involving any sort of property damage, restitution is a necessary part of a respondent’s sentencing. Family, friends, and youth court volunteers play a crucial role in establishing a continuous support group for each respondent in their process of taking control of their lives.

    The increasing value of Youth Court is that it relieves pressure on the judicial system and monetary strain for the parties involved. Alternative forms of litigation have become a crucial field of the legal system since it allows for resolution outside of the court room, and Youth Courts are a prime example of that. The establishment of Youth Courts nationally has decreased the number of cases on court dockets, and the recidivism rates of offenders who successfully complete the program are incredibly low. Youth Courts allow the court and the community to focus their resources on the cases that truly need special attention. The implementation of teen attorneys allows Youth Courts to operate with a low cost budget, while providing an irreplaceable legal experience for those involved. These teen attorneys are trained by practicing attorneys and are more emotionally connected to these cases than practicing since the crimes are committed by those in their community and impact others their community.

  • Kathleen Self
    12:22 PM March 1, 2011

    In response to the comment above please know that Mr. Campagna’s story is exceptional given the seriousness of the charges that faced him. Our Teen Court in Sarasota County, Florida receives 85% of our cases directly from law enforcement officers as a pre-arrest referral. However, that aside,he certainly participated in services that meet the definition of “restorative” justice:

    1) Participants experience services that provide a different way of thinking about crime and our response to crime-Accomplished: The peer involvement and sanctioning are certainly a different way of sanctioning juvenile offenders. Returning as a jury member also provides law realted education and exposure to civic responsibility that are unique and creative.

    2. Sanctions focus on repairing the harm caused by crime and reducing future harm through crime prevention-Accomplished-The opportunity to return as a juror, the performance of community service, and other constructive sanctions provide the chance for the victim and community, student volunteers, and at-risk youth to all benefit from a better understanding of the advantages of law abiding citizenship.

    3. Requires offenders to take responsibility for their actions and for the harm they have caused-Accomplished-Youth/Teen Courts, with a few exception where guilt is determined, are sentencing hearings for youth who accept responsibility (admit guilt).

    4. Seeks redress for victims, recompense by offenders and reintegration of both within the community-Accomplished: All programs include, at a minimum, victim statements presented at hearings, letters of apology or verbal apology when appropriate to victims, community service, financial restitution in cases where personal harm or property damage was involved.

    5. Requires a co-operative effort by communities and the government: Accomplished-Teen/Youth Courts are cooperative services between multiple agencies i.e state attorneys, public defenders, school administrators, law enforcement officers who work together to determine if the services are appropriate.

    Stefan, eight years after successful completion of his sanctions, continues to give much back to not just our community but the new community of Hostra Law School. He voluntarily retunred to mentor at-risk youth through his participation in discussion groups required of all our young offenders, has started a program in his new community, and is working on legislation to support New York State’s Youth Courts.

    I hope this provides additional insight regarding the concerns noted in the previous posting.