Youth Courts Model Restorative Justice

  • In one courtroom, a teenage boy watches as tears fall down his mother’s face. The mom is on the stand answering questions about her son’s use of tobacco. The boy is a juvenile first offender charged with possession and use of tobacco. The mother’s tears express the pain and grief she feels that her son has taken on a habit she herself has fought so many years. When the young man takes the stand, a 16-year-old girl turns a piercing gaze on the young man. She asks the boy to look at his mother’s face, closely. She asks the boy to look at the tears falling from his mother’s cheeks and says, “Remember her face whenever you think about chewing tobacco.”
  • A 12-year-old boy kept getting into trouble. The young boy was hanging around a crowd of older boys who were getting into a lot of trouble. When the boy appeared before the youth court, part of his disposition/sentence was to change his friends. So, an older male youth court volunteer said, “You need to hang out with me.” And afterward, the youth court volunteer would go over to the boy’s house and pick him up and do things to move the younger boy in the right direction.
  • Have you ever seen a girl with multicolored hair and a chip on her shoulder the size of a 2x4? What an attitude! Angry! Smart mouth! She was appearing before the youth court on a curfew violation. Disrespectful! At least, that’s what the youth court volunteers thought. And, the consequence they set for the girl showed the youth court’s dissatisfaction with her behavior. What that chip was hiding was that she was protective of her feelings and of her younger siblings. The chip was hiding the fact that she didn’t want anyone to feel sorry for her. In the disposition, the youth court saw through her act and chose community service that would place her in a position where she could be protective of other children. She flourished and is doing well.

These are examples of what miracles can occur in a youth/teen court. In courtrooms across the state, teenagers gather to conduct hearings that will impact the future of their peers. Lives have been turned around and saved because of the time and consideration taken to develop an appropriate sentence.

High School Senior Kent Sapp recalls how having students his own age pass judgment caught his attention. “I could ‘play’ my mom, but I couldn’t ‘play’ these guys [youth court youth volunteers],” he says. Now, on the threshold of being nominated for admittance into West Point, he says he sees the importance of the program. “I’d like to see this [youth court program] expand and go across the state [so more people can] see how good it is and what good it can do.”

But How Do Youth Courts Actually Help?

Youth court programs use restorative justice. Restorative justice says to the juvenile first offender, “You are OK; you made some bad decisions and you have to repair the harm those bad decisions caused.” So, the labeling as well as the negativity and stigma that go with labeling don’t occur.

To give you an idea of how restorative justice works, look at the story of one young man, who was before the Youth Court. During questioning, he revealed that he liked animals and explained that he would find animals who were hurt and lost and try to help them. One of the tenets of youth court programs is to try to reconnect juvenile first offenders to their communities. In this case, the reconnection point was clear. The juvenile offender/respondent would do his community service with a veterinarian. What happened next? The vet eventually gave the boy an after-school job.

“The Lake County Teen Court has accomplished the goal of involving youth with the legal system in each community, one goal of youth courts,” says Juvenile Court Judge Danny Goodman Jr. “It gives first-time offenders an opportunity to learn from their mistakes and realize that they can make a change. It also gives students the opportunity to help their peers and has given them an inside look at just how the legal system in the United States works.”

In Lake County, Goodman reports that several students who have been involved in the youth court have decided that the field of law and criminal justice is something that interests them and have entered college with a major in those fields.

“The Lake County Teen Court has been in existence for eight years now, and I have my first former student who has entered law school with several in college with a pre-law major,” Goodman says. “I can’t say that I always make good decisions, but there is one decision that I made that has impacted the lives of both youth and their families in my community. That decision was the implementation of the Lake County Teen Court.”

There are nearly 20 programs either operating or implementing in Tennessee, from Bristol to Memphis. The programs are evidence-based models of the U.S. Department of Justice/Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. Over the 14-year history of youth court programs in Tennessee, the average rate at which juveniles offend after going through the program is less than 6 percent. Some research suggests that recidivism in traditional juvenile courts could exceed 18 percent.[1]

Tennessee youth court programs have heard more than 2,000 cases and have saved state taxpayers court costs, cost of appointed attorneys, reliance on community service rather than detention/incarceration, and court time amounting to more than $1 million, by conservative estimates.

The Tennessee Youth Court Program, which raises community awareness of these effective programs statewide, is an initiative of the Tennessee Bar Association. By sharing information, the Tennessee Youth Court Program encourages judges and community leaders to start new programs.

Local Examples

Across the state, county programs have success stories. Those involved in them are the best advertisements.

“The Hamilton County Youth Court is meeting our expectations and is just what the doctor ordered,” Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw says. The program will celebrate its first anniversary this spring, graduating some seniors and training new recruits. “I can’t praise the Tennessee Youth Court Program enough for helping us get established.”

Judge Goodman agrees. As soon as he was elected, he says, he began looking for a program that would involve the youth with the justice system. While attending the annual juvenile judge’s conference, he learned about Youth Courts, which are also called Teen Courts. “I realized that it would be exactly the program that could accomplish what I wanted. I began to gather information and with the help of my Youth Service Officer, and we implemented the first Teen Court in Lake County.”

One young man had appeared before a youth court in another state as a juvenile first-offender. Later his father called the office of the Tennessee Youth Court Program to learn about programs across this state and perhaps sit in on youth court training. It was arranged that the young man and his father would sit in on training offered by another county, as there was no program in their home county. After the training, the teen launched an effort with his best friend to start a youth court in his community. Now his community is looking for an adult volunteer to act as the youth court coordinator.

Jack Levine must love to hear these stories from people who have started youth courts in their counties. He is the program director for the National Association of Youth Courts. In this job, he works “as a volunteer advocate to promote the viability of these important community investments in the future of our young people,” he says. “Delivering positive justice programs to keep our children and youth out of trouble and paving a positive path to their futures is as worthy a priority as any I know.”

Starting a Program

Once the decision is made to start a new youth court, the Tennessee Youth Court Program assists with implementation: training of youth and adult volunteers, providing technical support and overseeing program fidelity as well as collecting data on program effectiveness.

As program director for the Tennessee Youth Court Program, I meet with judges and community leaders to share with them the value and benefits of youth court programs. When I meet resistance, it’s usually one of two reasons: either they are concerned that the program usurps the ability of the elected judge to determine guilt or innocence; or they are concerned that restorative justice appears to reward bad behavior. When judges learn that youth court programs are model juvenile delinquency interventions that are diversions, judges become more open. When community members understand that restorative justice doesn’t let the juvenile offender “off the hook” but helps the young person to understand and learn from mistakes, as well as giving him/her a stake in the community, resistance subsides.

Youth court programs exist in 49 states and the District of Columbia. However, no state has an entity like the Tennessee Youth Court Program that supports, oversees program accountability and initiates the expansion of youth court programs. “It is so heartwarming to see young people’s lives changed for the better through this program,” says Cynthia Richardson Wyrick. She is immediate past president of the Tennessee Bar Association and chair of the Tennessee Legal Community Foundation, the nonprofit arm of the Tennessee Bar Association.

Madison County General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Christy Little, a self-described “skeptical jurist,” is also a big believer in youth courts.

“The preparation time and initial organization is so easy due to the detailed groundwork set out by the Tennessee Youth Court Program,” she says. “Anyone can become involved. As a skeptical jurist, I can honestly say that I am ‘sold’ on this well-organized, hands-on learning experience. More importantly, I am convinced that it saves lives. This program not only changes and potentially prevents future criminal activity of the participants, but it also makes the Youth Peer Jury accountable to themselves, their other jurors and their community. I dare say that no other prevention tool can claim this success in such impressive numbers.”

It Goes Both Ways

As Little points out, in youth court programs, benefits don’t go in only one direction. Not only do juvenile offenders/respondents benefit, but so do the youth court-youth volunteers. The youth volunteers have opportunities to exhibit leadership, learn about the justice system, and learn how to give back to their communities. And, sometimes they get a glimpse into the profession they will choose to follow.

“I can honestly say that the teen court program has changed my life,” Eric Mauldin says. “When I was in high school I really didn’t know exactly what to do with my life. I heard about this program that would let me be an attorney. … And so I got involved and I really found my life’s passion. I found out what I like to do, which is litigate cases.” Mauldin is now assistant district attorney in Tennessee’s 18th Judicial District.

Kaylin Bailey, 17 and an honor student, says she has not been in trouble herself, but she wants to help people and major in psychology. A member of the Blount County Youth Court, she says her experience helped her understand that “these teens who get in trouble are just like me.” When she sees a teen who has shoplifted, she now knows that that person is just like her but has just made a bad decision. “[Youth Court] changes the way you look at things,” she says. “It’s changed my perspective a lot.” She says, “Youth court made me figure out what I wanted to do.”

Another member of the Blount County Youth Court, Collin Bentley, says there have been a few cases where he saw that “positive changes were made, where you see that what you’re doing has an impact.”

Both Bailey and Bentley were recently selected as recipients of the QuestBridge National College Match, a college and scholarship application process that helps outstanding economically challenged high school seniors gain admission and full four-year scholarships to the nation’s most selective colleges (11,654 students across the nation applied for the 4,180 scholarships that were offered).

Bentley says he doesn’t think just listing “youth court” on the application got him the scholarship, but that it was because of what it signifies. It’s the fact that he was “looking to help and improve things,” he says. “Youth court gave me the expectation that things could be improved. In my own personal life I started looking at what could be improved.” His perspective has been broadened because of Youth Court, he says. “It gave me a sense of roundedness, that you aren’t better than your peers are.”

Youth Courts Foster Creative Solutions

Dispositions decided by the Youth Court volunteers are not always the easiest, but are usually the most appropriate — and creative. They take the time to think what would best help a student see what they did wrong as well as what would help them make better choices in the future.

Once when teenaged youth court volunteers called to interview a parent whose child was truant, one participant recalls, the mother burst into tears and asked for help. Her daughter had been very sad and unwilling to go to school, she said, not wanting to connect to the new school, hadn’t made any friends and hadn’t joined any activities. The girl’s feelings of isolation were so great that she cried when asked about her school attendance on the stand.

As an adult, what would you do? The teen court jury chose a disposition that would help the student to join organizations that would enable her to meet with others who were new at the school, students who shared common interests and with whom she could make friends. The disposition also ordered that she take advantage of counseling services that were available.

Goodman says he has found that the Teen Court members take this responsibility very seriously and “always approach every case with exactly what they feel is the most appropriate
disposition for the peer that appears before them.”

If you get a chance to see this part of the justice system in action, or to support it, do so. Former Tennessee Bar Association President Sam Elliott agrees. “This [the Tennessee Youth Court Program] obviously has made a huge difference.”

Tennessee Youth Court Program Needs Your Help

Momentum is building around youth court programs in Tennessee. In fact, the number of programs has more than doubled in four years. As the youth court programs flourish in Tennessee, youth court funding has begun to wane. The federal funding on which the program has relied since its inception will end this year.

The Tennessee Youth Court Program needs your assistance to continue and to grow. As attorneys, you have the best understanding of the value of a program that educates youth about the justice system and the judiciary. You, more than anyone, understand the value of connecting with your community and you know the cost of incarcerating youth and the value of giving youth a second chance. So, we come to you for help. Help the Tennessee Youth Court Program by making others aware of the program.
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1. Butte, Buck, Coggeshall, “The Impact of Teen Court on Young Offenders,” Urban Institute Justice Policy Center, April 2002.

DENISE D. BENTLEY is Youth Court coordinator at the Tennessee Bar Association and a graduate of Vanderbilt University Law School.

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