At 16, Amelia’s life looks much like that of any high school student these days. She sits down at her computer in her Fargo home every day for school, works on her government and history homework at night and practices ballet and theater in her free time.
But once a week, she does something not quite so typical. Amelia takes her place in front of her computer screen, signs into the Teams virtual meeting app and begins questioning another teenager with the analytical skills and calm confidence of a seasoned prosecutor.
Court allows kids to make amends, avoid juvenile criminal record
Typically, kids ages 10-17 are offered teen court as a voluntary alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system, and youths must usually admit guilt to the charge to participate in the process. In return, defendants (known in Youth Court-speak as “respondents”) avoid getting a juvenile criminal record at a very young age and get a chance to repair harm and make amends for wrongdoing.
Amelia remembers her first Youth Court hearing, which involved a middle school student. She recalls thinking how strange it was that, if he didn’t have the option of Youth Court, someone so young could be appearing in juvenile court.
On the other side of the “bench,” the peer-run court is an excellent training ground in criminal justice for high school volunteers like Amelia. The respondents typically are there for minor, first-time offenses such as assault, disorderly conduct, theft, property damage or alcohol and tobacco violations.
“One of the most important things I've learned from Youth Court is how much little things can make a difference. I never would have thought I could do anything about the problems in the juvenile justice system without actually working for that system or becoming a politician, but this program, run by people outside of the system who just wanted to address a problem, has kept tons of kids from having a criminal record for minor deviances which would affect them disproportionally later. In one hearing, an hour or so, the respondent's future has maybe been changed." – Amelia, Youth Court volunteer.
Amelia says she has seriously considered studying law because of Youth Court. “Definitely, yes,” she says. “Especially the human element of it and thinking about the effect it has on the kids.”
Volunteers take their roles very seriously
Elle Raile, who heads LSSND’s Restorative Justice program, says she is impressed by the poise and maturity Amelia exhibits during Youth Court hearings.
“Amelia is so fantastic,” Raile says. “She’s respectful, but she’s also a little intimidating – but not in a bad way. She’s just very direct in her questioning.”
Occasionally, people will come to Youth Court thinking that it might be a sort of kangaroo
court run by a few disinterested teens. They soon learn otherwise. “The level of seriousness that Amelia and the other volunteers give to this kind of brings it back to order,” Raile says.
Students must show real dedication to volunteer for Youth Court. They receive a rigorous, 3- to 4-hour training session to learn about the Youth Court structure and their role within it. Prior to the pandemic, they typically met at LSSND’s Program Center up to twice a week to try cases.
Since the advent of COVID-19, their referrals have slowed – although they’ve still found a way to try cases virtually. Most recently, technology allowed them to meet with a respondent and her family, even though she was in Williston and her mother was in Fargo.
“I never really thought of dropping (Youth Court) just because of (the pandemic),” Amelia said. “I really like the program and want it to continue this way.”
Like Amelia, each volunteer has a role. The respondent advocate is almost like a defense attorney, meeting with the family first, answering any of the questions from the respondent or their family and helping the court understand the respondent’s side of the issue. The Chief Justice leads the hearing – presiding over the proceedings, keeping the respondent and family informed on next steps and sharing the court’s “assignment,” or decision. Other court members are considered judges and assist in deliberations.
Assignments, rather than verdicts, tailor-made to fit the offense
After all the facts of the case are presented, the court members deliberate to determine an appropriate assignment. Assignments are restorative in nature, requiring that the teen do things like write apology letters, pay restitution or do volunteer work.
Some assignments reflect the ingenuity of young minds. Respondents have been asked to make “No trespassing” signs if they were on someone else’s property, list healthier alternatives to taking revenge on someone, journal their thoughts and feelings for 20 days, complete 10 tutoring sessions, or create a presentation on the dangers of underage drinking.
Either way, it seems to work. Some studies suggest that Youth Court, when properly carried out, can prevent youth from repeat-offending.
In fact, that’s one reason why kids like volunteering for Youth Court – because they believe it isn’t just a slap on the wrist, but a strategic, thoughtful and important process that makes a real difference in kids’ lives.
“I think we are able to help kids learn from what they did because we give assignments that make sense for what happened,” one of this year’s volunteers told Raile. “Working on real cases referred by law enforcement or Juvenile Court means that what we are doing matters,” another said.
As for Amelia, she has gained a lot of insight.
"Another thing ... is how easily one could get charged by police for misbehaving in school. For example, we've had cases about kids swearing in school – something which is really not worth a criminal record. I'm glad the program exists to prevent that for kids, but unfortunate for kids in places without Youth Court. Of course, there are some things for which age is no excuse, but someone shouldn't have to worry about having trouble getting into college or getting a job because of something small they did at 13, or even 17. The decision-making part of your brain isn't even matured until 25." – Amelia, Youth Court volunteer.
"There are all sorts of pressures on kids from school, home and peers, and they often don't have good examples to look up to, or a reason to care if they do good or get in trouble and how it might affect them later," Amelia adds.
“They’re so, so good at what they do,” Raile says. “It really excites me to grow a volunteer base beyond where they’re at, when they are such great leaders already. It’s such an exciting place to be.”
If you are interested in learning more about Youth Court, please message Raile at firstname.lastname@example.org
– Tammy Swift