Peers run, dispense justice in Youth Court

In Youth Court, it’s the offender’s peers who serve as the judge, jury and lawyers of the court.
Michael Koester
Michael Koester

Jason (pseudonym) sits on the stand in the courtroom looking out at the jury. The prosecutor stands to ask him a question: “Why did you do it?”

Jason looks up at the prosecutor. “I just did it,” he says, looking sheepishly at the prosecutor. “I didn’t believe I would be caught. And now, I realize how foolish I was.”

Both attorneys present their closing arguments, and the judge dismisses the jury for deliberation. After a half-hour, they come back out of their room with Jason’s sentence. Fifteen hours of community service, jury duty, and a remedial program for juvenile thieves for the theft of a $100 stereo from a local department store.

This is the world of Youth Court, a program in Saratoga and Schenectady counties that tries youth who have pleaded guilty to minor misdemeanors such as theft, vandalism and drug possession.

In this court, it’s the offender’s peers who serve as the judge, jury and lawyers of the court.

“Youth Court is a program where first-time juvenile criminal offenders are sentenced by family court to participate,” says Marissa Mastroianni, a junior at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School and a regular Youth Court prosecutor. “The goal of this program is rehabilitation for the offender. By putting the offender on trial by their peers, it makes them see the depravity of what they’ve done and how they need to get on the right path. Many studies have shown that this program works; you can just see it by the looks on the offenders’ faces.”

Sentences by the Youth Court jury include community service hours, behavioral programs, service on the court’s own jury, letters of apology to injured parties and even a tour of the county jail. These sentences are legally binding, and the offender is required to follow through no matter what the jury’s verdict.

Any officers of the court must attend a several-hour training session to participate. The training covers the roles of the court — the judge, defender, prosecutor and clerk and the trial procedure.

“I found the training session to be really informative,” says Robin Ferdenzo, a 10th grader at BH-BL and frequent juror. “I learned many things about the American justice system, and the benefits of participating in a Youth Court program.”

The Youth Court does not benefit just the offender, but also serves as a positive experience for the court participants. Both Marissa and Robin are hopeful attorneys, and find the experience valuable to them.

The volunteer work, they say, serves as a great community service activity to put on a work or college resume.

Youth Court officers in turn benefit the community and offender by deterring the offender from future crimes and making them a better member of society.

Trials are generally held after school or at night in regional courts. Training is usually held in the fall.

For more information on how you can get involved, call Lisa Chamberlain at 581-1230 ext. 20 for the Saratoga County program or Laura Zeliger at 346-1281 for the Schenectady County program.

Michael Koester is an 11th-grader at Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake High School.

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