Peer pressure is a powerful influence, especially for young people, who often get in trouble because of it. But there's a way to use that power in a positive manner; it's called youth court . Locally the towns of Bethlehem and Colonie have had them since the mid-1990s, and the Albany school district started one in 2011.
Youth courts are an alternative to the regular court system for kids accused of minor offenses such as shoplifting, school fighting, truancy, graffiti and vandalism. The courts are conducted by teens who are trained as jurors, attorneys and judges, and they are overseen by volunteer professional judges, educators, attorneys and law enforcement officials.
There are now more than 80 of these courts operating in New York state, and they've proven their worth. By diverting low-level cases, they ease the pressure on overburdened state and local courts . They also reduce the burden on probation and correctional services because kids who go through the youth court process have a lower recidivism rate than those handled by conventional courts .
That's because they're more likely to feel that they have been treated fairly, that they actually did something wrong, and that they are giving back to the community. The focus is on restorative justice.
Typical sanctions (which youth court participants almost always complete, often with real enthusiasm and commitment) are community service, writing essays or letters of apology, and counseling. Many participants continue with volunteer community service after their sanctions end, or join the youth court , serving alongside those who sentenced them. Some wind up going into careers in criminal justice.
The New York State Bar Association is right to recognize the value of youth courts and to advocate for more of them around the state. In 2010, it created a Special Committee on Youth Courts headed by former Chief Judge Judith Kaye and Schenectady lawyer Patricia Rodriguez. It would be good if they could get one going in the Schenectady school district.