Youth Court gives kids chance to save kids

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Hundreds of East End teenagers, caught each year for minor crimes including shoplifting, vandalism and trespass are spared the ordeal of traveling to the Family Court in Riverhead.

They are not spared a court date, nor a prosecutor’s accusations, nor a judge’s wrath, nor a jury’s judgment of their crime. And they are not spared punishment.

These young first-time offenders stand trial in Youth Court, a legal forum run entirely by other high school-aged kids. For defendants facing charges for the first time in their lives, for crimes that require disposition in the court system, their peers prosecute, defend and judge their cases. Even the court officers are teenagers like them, often students from their own schools.

In Youth Court they are given a chance, one chance, to learn from their mistakes, atone for their wrongdoing and, hopefully, learn the importance of choosing a different path in the future. Legal experts call it “corrective justice.” Those who have seen it in action call it a godsend for kids on both sides of the law.

Last week, the students who run Youth Courts in five Long Island towns gathered in East Hampton Town Court, this time not to handle real cases but to show off the skills they have honed administering justice.

They were competing in the sixth annual “mock trial” event sponsored by the Long Island Youth Court Coalition. Students from East Hampton Town’s Youth Court won the competition but few of those involved considered a blue ribbon the real prize of the night.

For the Youth Court volunteers, many with their eyes on legal futures and their first semester of college next fall, the competition was a chance to hear what professionals thought of their skills and what advice they could offer. The judges at Thursday’s competition were real judges, lawyers and police officers from across the Island.

They were often impressed, sometimes critical and always encouraging and supportive of the Youth Court program as a whole.

“I was pretty impressed with some of their style,” said Matthew Newborn, an attorney who served as a judge for the competition. “They bring out some issues that you wouldn’t hear in a normal court case. Personal issues, things that may weigh on the extent to which harm was done in each case.”

The principals of Youth Court focus not on the black and white details of what crime was committed, who the offender was and meting out a commensurate punishment, but on making the young offenders understand the harm they caused and allowing them to repair the damage as best they can.

The purpose of a “trial” in Youth Court is not to determine guilt or innocence. To participate, offenders must first admit their culpability. The court’s goal is to determine a fair way to make amends. Punishments usually involve community service and written or oral apologies. Sometimes participation in counseling or peer discussion groups is required.

The most harsh penalty, most of the kids agreed, is a mandatory tour of the Suffolk County Jail in Riverhead with parents along. All students who volunteer for Youth Court service must take the tour so that they understand the experience themselves.

“It is intense—like, really intense,” East Hampton High School senior Shola Farber said on Thursday after serving on the prosecution for one of the mock trials. The other members of her prosecution team, Tucker Hurley and Alexandra Fairweather, nodded wide-eyed in agreement. “It’s a truly terrifying experience.”

With two real Youth Court trials under their belts and last week’s competition victory, the three East Hampton seniors agreed the experience of Youth Court had been one they had enjoyed and learned from. They said it had helped prepare them to pursue legal careers and helped the student defendants who had come before them.

“It works well for both sides,” said Mr. Hurley, who is headed for Hunter College next year to study law. “We get the courtroom experience” and the defendants “get to plead their cases in a way they might not get to in a real courtroom.”

In Youth Court, ignorance of the law is an excuse, unlike in a real courtroom. Youth Court defendants get a chance to explain their side of the story, no matter what the legal issues might be, and promise that they will not commit offenses again. If they break that promise, there is no returning to their peers for a new sentence, only a trip to appear before a real judge in Family Court.

Punishments in Youth Court, however, are not lenient.

“They can be really tough,” said East Hampton Town Police Officer Mathew Rodriguez on Thursday night. A school resource officer for the department, he added, “I’m surprised sometimes. They’re more strict than the regular court would be.”

To participate in Youth Court, student volunteers must complete a 10-week training course, covering everything from courtroom manners and procedures to community service options and case preparation, led by attorneys and judges who volunteer their time. The students must then pass the Youth Court Bar Exam.

“I love it,” said Anna Lynott, a Westhamtpon Beach High School sophomore who has been the prosecutor in two Southampton Town Youth Court trials. “The training is hard and long but it is so worth it. It’s fun and you feel like you’re really doing something good, for yourself and for the kids on trial.”

The judges at Thursday’s competition praised the students’ legal savvy and offered constructive criticism. For the East Hampton and Southampton teams, there was a bit too much reliance on their notes while questioning witnesses or delivering their arguments, according to Riverhead Town Justice Alan Smith. Notes are for preparation, he told them, not for the courtroom. There, one’s instincts have to be allowed to take over.

“Lose the crutch—don’t look down at your paper, you know what’s on the paper,” Judge Smith said. “Trial advocacy is like mud wrestling. You get prepared as best you can and then you climb into the ring.”

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