Restorative Justice and the Youth Court System

Image from WS Police

The idea that an offender of the law ought to be judged by a court of their peers is the idea which defines “Youth Court” a legal body consisting of students of the Senior Secondary and Collegiate level age range to which I have belonged to for three years. Youth Court is akin to any other court of law in structure and execution, except for the fact that everyone who partakes in court proceedings is in the 14-18 age range. When someone underage is found guilty of a crime, they are taken for sentencing before a jury of their peers, defended by a team of their peers, and prosecuted by a team of their peers, in a court which is overseen by a judge, who, in addition, is usually 17 or 18 years old. Sentencing is based on the principle of restorative justice, which is a theory of justice that emphasizes the need of the wrongdoer to repair the harm caused by his/her criminal behavior. This system avoids punishment for punishment’s sake and instead seeks restitution and improvement, both personally and in terms of the community. Youth Court is a body recognized by the state as an official court of law and is ingrained in the New York State legal system as a customary measure for discipline. Despite its eccentricities, Youth Court is renowned as one of the most effective systems of justice employed for young people, with a laudable recidivism rate of 5%. This is an especially good indicator of success when one notes that youth offenders are statistically proven to revert back to crime after receiving consequences at a rate triple that of adult offenders.

The Youth Court System in Detail

The participators in Youth Court are all of school age. Youth Court members make up the jury, the prosecuting attorneys, the defense attorneys, the bailiff, the clerk, and the judge. All Youth Court members go through extensive training to ensure that legal proceedings are fair and effective. For example, my county’s Youth Court meets every Monday for an hour. We are split into first year Youth Court members, who are taught the basics of law and the court system, and the more senior members, who work with professional lawyers on the finer points of law and debate. The prosecuting and defense attorneys are hand-selected for each case by the Youth Court advisors on the basis of talent, understanding of law, public speaking ability, and experience and put to work on their position in a team of three. Because of these requirements, they are generally selected from the more experienced section. Most beginning Youth Court members start out on the jury. This provides incoming members an initial sense of Youth Court proceedings which they ought to have before they move behind the tables as lawyers. The judge is usually a senior member of Youth Court who makes judgements on objections and directs the court as needed.

The Youth Court system deals primarily in misdemeanors and the softer felonies. The types of offenses accepted for trial varies among different Youth Courts around the United States and is exhibited by the chart below, which can be found website for the “National Association of Youth Courts.”

Type of Offense Percent of Youth Courts that Accept This Type of Offense
Theft 91%
Vandalism 76%
Alcohol 73%
Disorderly Conduct 73%
Assault 67%
Possession of Marijuana 60%
Tobacco 59%
Curfew Violations 50%
School Disciplinary 45%
Truancy 39%
Trespassing 38%
Criminal Mischief 30%
Possession of Drug Paraphernalia 24%
Other Drug Offenses 20%
Harassment 21%
Fraud 8%

The “respondent,” as the guilty party is referred to in the Youth Court system, is designated guilty before he or she is sent to Youth Court, either by a traditional court, school disciplinarian, or something of the like. Because of this, the defense attorneys and prosecuting attorneys are not arguing the guilt of the respondent, but the degree of sentencing required to pay back the victims of the crime, an argument usually based around factors such as the respondent’s motivations, the magnitude of the crime, and the circumstances under which it was committed. The court proceedings go on as any court proceedings would. The jury is brought into the courtroom and questioned to ensure that no one on the jury holds a bias one way or another concerning the case or those involved. If any source of bias is found, the juror is removed from the case. From there, the prosecuting attorneys and defense attorneys present their opening statements before moving to the direct and cross examination, which, again, proceed like the questioning in any other court of law. The defense witnesses are generally the respondent, the parents of the respondent, and any relevant source who may wish to testify. The prosecution witnesses may consist of the victim of the crime, should they wish to come before the court, or a police officer who handled the case. The closing statements are given, during which sentences are proposed by both teams, with the prosecuting team advocating a tougher sentence and the defense team advocating a lesser one. The jury deliberates a medium between the two sentences in a separate room and decides on the final deposition, which is read to the court. The deposition is read to the court and the respondent must carry out the provisions of the sentence or risk being sent back to adult court for a much harsher one. Unlike normal court proceedings, Youth Court is strictly confidential. All phones and possible recording devices are collected upon entrance to the courtroom, the proceedings are closed to the public, and each Youth Court members signs a strict confidentiality agreement in which they agree to keep the identities and details of each case secret. If any member breaks this confidentiality agreement, they are thrown out of Youth Court.

Restorative Justice in Youth Court

In deliberating a sentence, the jury considers the basic principles of restorative justice, which asks two questions.

  1. Who were the victims of the crime?
  2. How can the respondent effectively pay back the victims for his/her damage?

Restorative justice is a theory that holds that there are no victimless crimes. In the certain types of crime, the victim is easily named; the victim of a robbery, the owner of a vandalized house, or the assault victim in a fight. On the other hand, some people argue that certain different types of crime such as drug possession and disorderly conduct have no victims. To that, proponents of restorative justice would respond that in every crime, the community is a victim. The logic behind this is that every time someone commits a crime, it damages the efficacy and nature of the community. The law officials and police officials who spent their time bringing justice to a certain individual were consequently removed from other duties that may have needed to be fulfilled and which taxpayers pay them to fulfill. Also, in every crime, the family of the respondent is considered a victim, as they suffer from the negative aftermath of their son or daughter’s actions alongside them, as the respondents are always underage. According to Restorative Justice, Youth Court also needs to be repaid as a victim, because the court dedicated its time and resources to try the crime in question. For example, I once tried a case where a fourteen year old girl was caught drinking n school. In that crime, we identified the school, the community, her parents, and Youth Court as the victims.

After one has identified the victims, they must then focus on how the all of the victims can be compensated in turn. The most popular elements involved in the average sentence in my local youth court are community service, oral/written apologies, educational workshops, counseling, jury duty, and jail tours. The following chart maps the statistics on the most common aspects in sentencing among national youth courts.

Sentencing Option % of Youth Courts Which Employ This Sentencing Option
Community Service 99%
Oral/Written Apologies 94%
Essays 92%
Educational Workshops 73%
Jury Duty 73%
Restitution 61%
Alcohol/Drug Assessment 57%
Curfew 46%
Tutoring 37%
Counseling 37%
Drug Testing 31%
Victim Awareness Classes 29%
Peer Mediation 23%
Jail Tour 22%
Observe Teen Court 14%
Mentoring 13%
Suspend Drivers License 9%

Community service is assigned as part of every sentence in varying amounts, because every crime victimizes the community. The hours necessary are decided after analyzation of the magnitude of the crime. A prosecuting attorney may argue that the respondent committed the crime maliciously, that the crime took a lot of effort to remediate, and how the crime had a significant negative impact on the community. On those grounds, they recommend that the respondent log fifty hours of community service to make up for their actions. A defense attorney, on the other hand, may argue that the respondent only needs to perform 20 hours of community service. In arguing this, they may imply that the crime took little effort to remediate, that such actions were an irregularity on the part of the respondent, and that the crime had few significant negative repercussions on the community. The jury synthesizes these two arguments and may decide, if both sides are equally convincing, to assign 35 hours. In any given case, they waver on a spectrum between the two poles provided by the attorney teams, and find their standing within it depending on the relative potency of each argument. Parents and victims usually receive an oral or written apology and the respondent is often sentenced to serve one time as a jury member for a separate case to pay back Youth Court. From there, the jury takes preventative and reformative measures to help the respondent in the future. I mentioned previously a case where a girl was reprehended for drinking in school. This girl had a difficult home life as well as a well documented tendency to act out. As a reformative measures, we sentenced her to attend a weekend seminar on the negative effects of drugs and alcohol on teens, a curfew of eleven o’clock, and counseling.

Value of Youth Court as an Institution

Youth Court has not only become a cornerstone of the New York State justice system, but a defining factor in our local community. Youth court programs nurture respect for the rule of law at a young age, help develop attitudes of positive citizenship, encourage community engagement and promote educational success by providing unique opportunities to cultivate skills in public speaking, law, debate, and morality. The system provides sanctions for young offenders by providing Restorative Justice as a mechanism which forces young people to be held accountable for their actions while providing a pathway for greater positive civic engagement and self improvement. The employment of positive peer pressure as a motivating factor for personal change is an often underused motivating tool which can yield amazing results. For young people, being told you are in the wrong by your peers is often more powerful than being told the same by your elders. In fact, the system has often transformed respondents so effectively that, after serving their sentence of jury duty, they themselves join Youth Court and undergo training to become a lawyer.

Youth Court also is transformative for members of the association. When I entered Youth Court, I had significant legal knowledge and some skill in persuasive writing, yet I was terrified of public speaking and consistently afraid of voicing my opinions out of fear of rebuttal. My biggest challenge was my lack of confidence, and I was not alone in this sentiment. However, the Youth Court I am a part of has several excellent volunteer attorneys who coach us towards whatever individual goals we have, whether its to make a closing argument for the first time or just to understand court procedure. Three years later, I’ve not only gained confidence in public speaking, but I genuinely enjoy debating, and am consistently asked to present the closing and opening arguments. Such is the effect of Youth Court on those who use it as an educational output. Youth Court also creates a community within our county. Through Youth Court, I’ve made friends from towns all over my area who share similar interests. The program is a place for intellectual exploration, for friendship, and for justice that seeks to instill not only a sense of the legal process, but a sense of morality as well.

Naturally, an organization such as Youth Court faces several obvious challenges. One objection to the system relates to whether or not the power of the law should be placed in the hands of people so young. It is true; Youth Court places the enormous responsibility on school age children, responsibility which is contingent upon maturity and integrity. Yet, in my experience, when you give teenagers space to step up to the plate to meet a challenge with universally acknowledged worth and consequences, they consistently perform and even exceed expectations.The voices of children are shown time and time again to affect the community deeply, and Youth Court is simply an organization which channels those voices and the integrity they carry into the justice system. Another challenge is that general education systems often lack the concentrated legal training which is required to be successful in court and that all offenders deserve in an attorney. To remedy this, community participation is necessary. In my Youth Court, we have volunteer lawyers and judges come in and educate us on the legal system. We prepare through mock trials and by watching and following real life cases on the news. In addition, sitting on the jury provides some of the best education on how to be successful in the courtroom, as, at least in my experience, students learn most effectively by watching their peers. After training, students are more than equipped to step up to the podium as an attorney.

Restorative Justice Ideology

Restorative Justice is a creative and progressive legal theory which takes into account the very personal nature of crime in a way that traditional justice often lacks. Unlike a traditional system of “crime and punishment,” Restorative Justice seeks to take the negative situation created by a crime and use the justice system to create an end which heals the negative situation and moves towards a positive one. It is based on the principle of retribution and seeks to make up for the harm the crime has caused the victims. The theory also sees a crime in the whole of its social context and tries to understand its complex relationships to other components. It promotes flexibility, creativity, and a forward way of thinking. One size does not fit all when it comes to the system of justice. Every crime is different, every offender is different, every community is different and all of the variations require the sentence to be tailored accordingly.

This differs from the widespread system of Retributive Justice, whereby an individual commits a crime and then is subject to his or her personal consequence of jail time, a fee, or something else in that general realm. In the traditional system, there is less focus on the victim’s restitution. The victim in a traditional system gets his or her relief from watching the offender be punished and thinking that he or she got what they deserved. In this situation, there is no positive relief to the community, but rather a progression of the ancient spiteful “eye for an eye” sentiment which says “You hurt me, so I can punish you.” Restorative Justice exists on the significantly more pleasant foundation which says “You hurt me, so now you must help me.” This way, the victim is repaid for the damages caused to them, and the transgressor spends the time that could have been wasted on a punishment with no beneficiary trying to repay the damages he or she has caused, through community service, apologies, personal betterment and reconstructive work. In doing this, they better understand the repercussions of their crime on personal and community levels. Such work causes personal introspection and fosters a character change that instills a sense of integrity deeper than that instilled by any threat of jail time ever could.

When evaluating the shortcomings and benefits of each system, one must ask in considering the victim’s position: what does anyone gain from placing their neighbor in a jail cell, besides the cold thrill of vengeance which stimulates the very hatred which gives birth to so many crimes? How will that make anything better? The Retributive Justice system also places the victims at the mercy of a judicial system. This is especially inadequate in highly personal crimes. If the prosecution fails, the victim is further victimized and humiliated. Even if the prosecution succeeds, the victim still has no personal say as to the course of action, and the grueling litigation of court proceedings often undermines their healing process. Restorative Justice, on the other hand, fosters victim empowerment and input in finding a sentence.

In essence, Restorative Justice is a form of mediation that aims to reconcile the tensions between offenders, victims and community, contrasting on that front with Retributive Justice, which merely punishes the offenders. Restorative Justice humanizes the system of punitive justice and places emphasis on an ideal where abusers of the law accept responsibility for their actions and make amends, in turn creating a level of advancement in their own rehabilitation. Sri Lanka is a country recovering from the bloodiest civil war in its history. Naturally crimes and tensions are left in high concentration after such a conflict. Yet, before one jumps to punish those criminals who most certainly deserve the consequences, it is necessary to think in the spirit of Restorative Justice and evaluate the complexities of the offenses, particularly those complexities pertaining to the community. Sri Lanka’s cultural and ethnic intricacies are not embodied in any code of law, yet are so prevalent as motivations and settings in crime that they render the current justice system incompetent in a myriad of cases.

Anger and hatred are born from any serious crime, and it is human nature to want criminals brought before justice in the spirit of retaliation. The problem with retaliation in a recovering country is that it promotes more unhappiness in a country that has no doubt experienced its fair share. The ideals of reconciliation, reconstruction, and mediation are associated not only with Restorative Justice, but peace. It provides the victims with concrete retribution and paves the way for tolerance, while ingraining a sense of community and insight into the offender. Cases relating to war crimes, crimes dealing with religious and ethnic issues, and crimes which affect war-stricken communities are exemplar beneficiaries of the constructive ideals of Restorative Justice, which have the ability to foster tolerance in way that the ideals of Retributive Justice lack. Restorative Justice has also proven effective in cases dealing with sexual violence, as it provides flexibility to deal with the obviously complex relationships between victims and criminals. Restorative justice leads to constructive rebuilding of communities and the healing of emotional and physical wounds caused by crime. If Sri Lanka wants to bring due justice to criminals while fostering long-lasting peace and a prosperous state, Restorative Justice illustrates a plethora of progressive ideals which may be productive to draw upon.