Leadership Blount class starting Blount Youth Court
By Iva Butler | (email@example.com)
Nonviolent, first-time youthful offenders who admit guilt would be able to apply for Youth Court, avoiding court costs and keeping the offense off their record if they perform sentences under the new program.
The current Leadership Blount Class of 2013 wants to establish a Youth Court in Blount County as its legacy project.
Class members Todd White and Knoxville attorney Lynn Peterson recently came before Maryville City Council to request that Maryville allow Youth Court to use city court as its venue.
The proposed plan is for Youth Court to be convened every other week between 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., said Peterson, the chair of the organizing committee for Leadership Blount. The proposal doesn’t involve trials, because the children would have already admitted guilt.
A jury of their peers would hand down alternative sentences, she said. Committee members are recommending that juries craft a service for each offender, such as anger management, community service, smoking cessation classes, victim compensation, writing formal apologies or other similar projects.
Both offenders and jurors would primarily be between 12 and 17 years old and mainly in grades 9-12, Peterson said. The program would be completely voluntary.
The types of offenses eligible to be heard in Youth Court would include juvenile cases involving assault, burglary and theft of property, vandalism, forgery, cruelty to animals, harassment, unauthorized use of a vehicle, disorderly conduct, runaway, violation of curfew, truancy, some traffic offenses and criminal trespass, she said.
According to Denise Bentley, youth court coordinator for the Tennessee Bar Association, young people decide cases with three things in mind: accountability — increasing the youthful offender’s awareness of the harmful effects of the behavior that results in the offense; competency development — providing the offender with skills that will enable the young person to make better choices in the future; and community safety — strengthening the connections between the youthful offender and the community at large which reduces factors that contribute to any further wrongdoing.
Youth courts were authorized by the state Legislature in 2000, and 13 youth courts are currently operating across the state.
“While 18 percent of youth who have appeared before traditional juvenile courts in Tennessee have committed future offenses, the rate of youth re-offending after sentencing by youth courts is under 7 percent,” said Peterson, a lawyer with Lewis, King, Kreig & Waldrop.
“The aim is to start having juries in September or October after the kids get back in school in August,” Peterson added.
Applications to serve on Youth Court juries would be taken countywide, including homeschoolers, public and private students, she said. “We will be going out seeking applicants.”
While an adult will be the facilitator, it is important that the voice of the kids evoke the sentencing, Peterson said.
The plan is not to have all straight-A students on the juries, but a cross-section of students — some of whom may be nontraditional leaders.
Youth Court would be very similar to adult Drug Court, but it would be a little more stringent and involve alternative sentencing, she said.
Peterson envisions the juries hearing cases for 45 minutes to an hour before coming up with a sentence. Any offenders who do not complete the sentence would be referred back to Blount County Juvenile Judge Terry Denton.
“I am choosing to be hands off in Youth Court,” Denton said. An adult would explain the judicial system to students, but the kids would be adjudicating other kids.
School Resource Officers could refer students to Youth Court, he said. The judge noted that juvenile cases take longer than adult courts and Youth Court could cut down on the traditional juvenile court docket.
After members of Leadership Blount 2013 met with Denton and received his approval to move forward with the project, they began planning for the recruitment of the all-volunteer staff, a program coordinator and a diverse group of high school students throughout Blount County.
“Aside from securing cooperation of Judge Denton, the most important element of a successful Youth Court will be identifying a strong volunteer coordinator to lead the program,” Peterson said. “We are working to find someone with strong organization skills and a passion for working with young people who can commit approximately 15 to 20 hours a week. While some knowledge of the court system would be helpful, it is not a requirement.”
The committee is also developing a process to recruit volunteer members on the Youth Court. Applicants must be high school age in the 9th to 12th grades in the 2013-14 school year, be residents of Blount County, have reliable transportation and never have been convicted of a felony.
“The ideal applicant for Youth Court is a nontraditional leader,” Bentley said. “Jury members need to understand that everyone makes mistakes and that these offenders are taking responsibility by admitting their guilt and being willing to accept the sentence recommended by the court.”