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For more than 40 years, youth courts in all 50 states have proven their success to let high school students—serving as lawyers, jurors, bailiffs, and judges—determine the real life phrases alleged juvenile offenders who are their peers.
Having established several youth courts in Kentucky, I know that these programs also served as pre-law learning for high school students, while also intended to divert juvenile offenders from incarceration.
Judges who preside over juvenile courts have often acknowledged that what happens in these proceedings amounts to a harsh lesson for low-level young offenders. They see youth court as a refreshing approach that allows offenders to be tried by people their own age who have had similar life experiences. And young offenders are sensitive to this dynamic. They are fully engaged in proceedings that are not rote written and scripted. They saw teenage prosecutors arguing for maximum sentences and teenage defense attorneys citing reasons why sentences should be lenient.
Some of our strongest and most consistent youth court participants, including jurors, had actually seen prior offenses resolved through the youth court process. They freely recognize second chances and are grateful that they have not been tainted with a criminal record that could harm their future.
Aspiring lawyers are recruited for the youth court
Led by prosecutors and defense attorneys and presided over by a real adult judge, highly structured youth courts orient students to the roles of attorneys, court clerks, bailiffs, and jurors. At the end of the training, students are sworn in to one academic year of service by the judges of the court in a formal ceremony attended by parents and community members.
All participants are sworn to confidentiality; they can be removed from the program and subject to sanctions if they breach this confidentiality. Some states require participants in youth court to pass an exam before being sworn.
Although it varies from state to state, in general, offenders referred to youth court are between the ages of 13 and 17 and have been charged with lesser non-violent offenses such as robbery by unlawful taking, mischief criminal, harassment, criminal trespass, disorderly conduct and so on. Participants in youth court decide if and how an accused teenager should be sentenced, they operate on the idea that the judgment of their peers can have a positive effect, encouraging law-abiding behavior and community involvement. The idea is that teenagers are very sensitive to the opinion of their peers.
Decisions made in youth court typically include community service, restitution, apologies, counseling, educational programs, and other alternatives. In the Kentucky programs I implemented, teenage defendants were always expected to return to serve on a youth court jury, building pro-social engagement with their peers.
If a judge accepts a youth court jury’s decision on a case, it is binding and becomes part of the record. Offenders who comply with the conditions rendered by the youth court jury may have their case settled without it becoming part of the court records. The cases of those who do not comply can be referred to juvenile court and resolved there.
The victories in this program are unprecedented. Rates of compliance with youth court decisions are generally high; recidivism rates are low. The program also offers excellent lessons in corrective and procedural justice and fosters the development of informed and engaged citizens. For several years in high school, many youth court participants serve the court and ultimately seek admission to law school or another related area of the justice system.
Youth courts and other apprenticeships have increased in number
Youth courts can be further strengthened by incorporating them into pre-learning or federally recognized. recorded learning program.
Apprenticeships offer a paycheck, on-the-job training, and related classroom instruction. Apprentices who successfully complete their training earn a recognized, transferable credential and often college credits.
Recorded learning has increased by 70% in the United States over the past 10 years. And according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the paralegal and legal assistant occupations are expected to grow 12% between 2020 and 2030, faster than the average for all occupations. This translates into 43,000 para-professional jobs per year for the next few years.
An approved apprenticeship in the field – paralegal – reflects the tasks that participants in youth court already perform:
• Preparation and management of legal documents.
• Meet with people involved in legal proceedings to clarify or gather additional information.
• Coordinate schedules and activities in court proceedings.
• Represent the interests of clients in legal proceedings.
• Mediation of disputes between the parties.
If these skills were incorporated into an apprenticeship program registered with youth court, participants could turn an informal work path into a solid career path.
Given the success of youth court and apprenticeship, it would seem wise for leaders in both fields to align their efforts and create a youth court apprenticeship that would provide young people with career opportunities in the fast-growing legal sector and well paid.
Deborah Williamson is Vice President of Special Projects and Operations at the American Institute for Workplace Skills and Innovation. Previously, among other positions, she was the General Manager of Juvenile Services at the Kentucky Court of Justice.