Youth court offers a second chance
Who understands the challenge of avoiding youthful transgressions? A case can be made that young people know what works best.
That’s reason enough for the Leadership Blount Class of 2013 to seek to establish a youth court to hear juvenile cases involving lower-level offenses such as vandalism, shoplifting, alcohol violations, traffic offenses and truancy.
For its legacy project, the Leadership Blount class is requesting that Maryville City Council allow the city court to be used as a venue for a new youth court.
Under the program authorized by the Tennessee Legislature in 2000, first-time youthful offenders who admit guilt can apply for youth court. If a case is accepted, court costs are avoided and the offense is kept off the youth’s record — provided the sentence is performed.
Youth court allows young people, around the ages 12 to 17, who have made mistakes one chance to avoid entering the juvenile justice system. No trial is involved. Guilt is already admitted.
Instead of appearing before an adult judge in a traditional juvenile court, the fate of the young person referred to a youth court is decided by other young people.
An adult is the facilitator, but teens serve as the lawyers in the case, as well as jurors, court clerks and bailiffs. Teen volunteers also choose the disposition or sentence for each case.
The volunteers learn about court procedures, sentencing options, trial techniques, structure of the justice system, the meaning of justice and relationships between rights and responsibilities.
It is recommended that alternative sentencing involve a range of activities such as community service, anger management, community service, smoking cessation classes, victim compensation, writing formal apologies or other similar projects.
In youth court, young people decide cases with three things in mind:
• Accountability — increasing the youthful offender’s awareness of the harmful effects of the behavior that resulted in the offense;
• Competency development — providing the offender with skills that will enable the young person to make better choices in the future;
• Community safety — strengthening the connections between the youthful offender and the community at large, which reduces factors that contribute to future wrongdoing.
Thirteen youth courts operate in the state. Results validate their effectiveness. While 18 percent of youth who’ve 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.
Blount Countians should jump at this opportunity, as proposed by Leadership Blount, to steer wayward young people back on path before compiling a record of misbehavior that follows them into adulthood. The benefits for the entire community are clear.