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A court of peers
By Ann Coppola, News Reporter
Published: 06/10/2008

Justice George Washington University’s Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence focuses on helping communities create safe and positive school environments. One way it accomplishes this goal is by producing reports on a variety of strategies relating to school safety and youth mentoring.

Recently the institute released Youth Courts: An Empirical Update and Analysis of Future Organizational and Research Needs, the third in a series of reports on this topic sponsored by the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. The data, which was collected from a national survey of youth courts, examines this increasingly popular alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system. More than 1,250 youth courts exist in 49 U.S. states and the District of Columbia, reflecting a significant increase from the 78 in 1994.

“Youth courts are an incredibly big thing that affect an awful lot of kids and potentially could impact an awful lot more,” says report author, Dr. Jeffrey Schneider, who studies issues of safe schools and organizational productivity. Sometimes referred to as teen court, peer jury, or student court, these courts typically include cases of first time, non-violent offenders between the ages of 11 and 17. Youth volunteers under adult supervision act as clerks, bailiffs, prosecutors, defenders, jury, and sometimes judges.

“We found that youth courts are dealing with referrals on 130,000 cases a year,” Schneider says. “This creates a real ability of these things to potentially help a lot of kids and also to save on the very large cost of placing those kids in the general juvenile justice system.”

Referrals can come from school officials, police departments, or judges. Most hearings last less than one hour and follow proceedings similar to a regular juvenile court. The sentences usually include essays, apologies to victims, or community service, and are to be completed within 30 to 90 days.

According to the report, youth courts offer benefits for youth offenders, youth volunteers, families, and communities. Youth courts can potentially keep non-violent and first-time offenders out of the juvenile justice system and detention facilities where they risk being exposed to hardened, violent and multiple offenders.

“If a young person is an area without a youth court, instead of the youth court experience and perhaps community service, they can be placed in a youth detention facility with other kids who have already committed much more hard core crimes,” Schneider explains.

The report also examines the extent of volunteer activity. During the year of the reported data, approximately120 teens and adult volunteered to serve on the average youth court.

“Youth courts have some incredibly dedicated people working for them,” Schneider says. “The number of volunteers they’ve been able to get is just phenomenal.”

One overall weakness, the report found was the lack of data to demonstrating recidivism rates of its participants.

“There is no national look at recidivism rates for youth courts because it’s data that is hard to collect,” explains Schneider. But in the long run, you need to be able to show this project is making the difference it wants to make.”

Another common trend among seems to be lack of funding. Thirty percent of youth courts are operating on a yearly budget of less then $10,000, and close to 70 percent are below $50,000.

“These courts are so under-funded,” Schneider adds. “The problem is they spend a huge amount of time looking for funding and that’s less time to spend on training.”

Despite tight budgets, these courts are flourishing, and have been one of the fastest growing justice programs in the country.

“If a school is experiencing behavioral problems, they can use the youth court to build norms in their school and to fix the issues that relate to school violence,” Schneider says.

Related Resources:

Learn more about the Hamilton Fish Institute

Visit the National Association of Youth Courts


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