ATLANTA-- For young juvenile offenders, youth courts can be life savers.
Stefan Campagna, now 24, told an audience yesterday at the American Bar Association Midyear Meeting in Atlanta about his teenage turnaround after he was sentenced by peers at a youth court trial. He was 16 at the time, had been accused of 27 felonies and had initially been turned down as a candidate for going to youth court for resolution.
“I was sentenced to 150 hours of community service and 18 [youth court] jury duties,” said Campagna. “Half way through my jury duty service, I realized I’m either going to be back here as a defendant again, or on the other side.”
Campagna chose the other side. He finished high school, graduated from college and is now a second year student at Hofstra University School of Law in New York.
For advocates – laypeople and lawyers, alike – who work with youth courts, they say they frequently see examples of the power of a peer-based intervention mechanism in reshaping lives and giving kids a second chance.
“I have eight attorneys that I work with who started out as juvenile offenders,” said Kathleen Self, executive director of Sarasota County Teen Court in Florida.
Self – who is not a lawyer – has been organizing youth courts for nearly 23 years. She points to some notable differences in recidivism rates when misdemeanors (for comparable offenses) are handled by youth courts.
She said that in Florida – where there are youth courts in 50 of the 67 counties – the recidivism rate is 12 percent for kids who have a first-time misdemeanor resolved in youth courts, and 42 percent for kids who go through the juvenile court system. Also of note, the average cost for a youth court appearance, per child, is $550, while the cost per child of appearing in juvenile court is $5,400.
“That’s $70 million savings statewide when teen courts divert kids out of the juvenile court system,” said Self.
Youth courts differ significantly from the traditional juvenile justice system in several ways: youth courts enlist student volunteers who are trained to take on the roles of lawyers and jurors in the court; the youth offender must agree to the peer-decided sentence, which typically involves restorative justice such as community service and victim restitution; and youth courts are considered a means of “primary intervention” so that kids are diverted from ending up in the juvenile justice system later on in life.
According to Jack Levine, program director of the National Association of Youth Courts, a super-majority of youth court cases do not involve the violence or extreme delinquent behavior seen in cases that typically move through juvenile court. If not for youth courts, most of these less extreme cases would be ignored and not make it to the traditional juvenile justice court system.
“These [youth court] cases don’t necessarily merit incarceration, but they certainly merit attention. Most young people will experiment and have a brush or two with illegal behavior. As responsible adults, it’s our responsibility to say, ‘What would work best?’ The youth court option works better in most cases,” said Levine.
Youth courts started back in the 1970s. By 1990 there were 50 nationwide. Now, said Levine, there are 1,050 youth courts across the country, and last year, they served 140,000 kids.
Campagna and a fellow 24-year-old will soon be running one of the nation’s newest youth courts in New York’s Nassau County.