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Courting Youth: Kids Land in the Docket for Playing Hookey

Kiera Butler Dec 1, 2004

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Illustrations by Frank Reynoso

The weekly evening session of the Harlem Youth Court had just begun, and the defendant, 11-year-old Deirdre Jones, was sucking her thumb. Her feet dangled from her chair next to the tall desk where the teenage judge sat, and her eyes darted around the wood-paneled courtroom to the moldings in the cathedral ceiling and over to the eight teenagers who made up the jury.

Minutes earlier, the jury members, wearing baggy white shirts with the Harlem Youth Court logo, had filed into the courtroom to listen to the case against Deirdre (names of youth court participants have been changed to respect their privacy). The police had picked up Deirdre for skipping school a few weeks before. Now, the jury fired questions at Deirdre.

“Do you think it was responsible to skip school?” asked a heavy-set girl with pigtails.

“No,” answered Deirdre, thumb still in her mouth.

“Do you know what ‘responsible’ means?”

“No.”

“Then how can you say you’re responsible?”

“I don’t know.”

THE YOUTH COURT SYSTEM

At the Harlem Youth Court, youth ranging from 14 to 17 years old go through six months of training so they can prosecute, defend and sentence kids who commit low level offenses. Children as young as 10 years old can be tried by the court. Typical offenses include truancy and fighting in school, and typical sentences include community service, tutoring and essay writing.

The Harlem Youth Court is part of the Harlem Youth Justice Center, which, according to its website, receives funding from sources that include the New York State Unified Court System, New York State Attorney General, U.S. Departments of Justice and Commerce, United Way of New York City and New York Police Department. In the past 10 years, youth courts have become the model for juvenile justice. According to a report by the National Youth Court Center, in 1994, there were only 78 youth courts nationwide. Now, there are 943.

The Harlem Youth Court is one of six youth courts in New York City. The courts vary greatly in caseload: some have only three cases per year, while others have as many as 250. The Harlem court is the only one in Manhattan, and its caseload is usually 50 to 75 per year. Most of its defendants and court members come from Harlem, East Harlem and the South Bronx.

The crimes the Harlem Youth Court addresses are not technically crimes at all. They’re what people used to call “mischief.” The most serious consequence for fighting or cutting school used to be a trip to the police station and a call home. Cops left it up to parents to mete out justice in the form of grounding or extra chores. But now, cops can make notes called Youth Delinquency Cards in children’s police files and recommend them to youth court.

The coordinators at the Harlem court believe in holding kids officially accountable for their behavior. Sentences of community service or written reflection, they say, give kids the chance to repair the damage they’ve done to the community.

“Punishment doesn’t do anyone any good, but neither does a complete lack of response from the community,” said Danielle Sered, one of two adult coordinators in Harlem.

But some observers say youth court is excessive, intimidating kids who would benefit more from social services than from a trial and a sentence from their peers.

“I have my doubts about whether a kid who skips school or violates curfew should be subject to a legal process,” said Jeff Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor who just completed a study on the Harlem Youth Court.

The legal process that the defendants go through is abbreviated. Each trial takes about 15 minutes, and everyone in the courtroom has a chance to ask the defendant questions.

ON TRIAL

Deirdre’s trial began with statements from the teenagers acting as prosecution and defense. Deirdre told the story of the day she skipped school in October.

Deirdre said a friend asked her to cut school for a day and she agreed. The girls met up in the morning and went to a Toys R Us store in their neighborhood. Around 12:30 p.m., a cop picked them up for truancy, took them to the station, and told them to call their parents. Deirdre’s friend’s mother came quickly, but her own mother had been in a car accident that day, so Deirdre had to stay at the police station till the evening.

“She feels bad about what she did and she will never continue to skip school again,” argued Deirdre’s lawyer, a willowy girl with glasses.

After the attorneys spoke, the jury questioned Deirdre for about five minutes. The jury then went to a nearby room to deliberate. When they returned one member read the sentence out loud: 10 hours of community service and an essay on responsibility.

Deirdre looked relieved. She scrambled down from her seat and ran into the back room to meet her mom.

After the trial, Deirdre said the cop who picked her up had told her she wouldn’t face any real consequences.

“They said the worst that would happen would be your parents would be mad at you,” said Deirdre.

WARNING LETTERS

Both Deirdre and her friend received Youth Delinquency Cards, and Deirdre’s mother, Alice Jones, received a letter about her daughter’s scheduled court date. Participation is voluntary, but Jones said she thought the law required her daughter to appear.

At another youth court in the Red Hook neighborhood of Brooklyn, case developer Alvin Mendez said he always tells potential defendants the process was optional, but one defendant and his 20-year-old brother who accompanied him to the youth court were shocked to learn that it was optional.

Confusion about the voluntary nature of the Red Hook Youth Court might result from the letters sent to families after the child is referred. After a coordinator makes an initial phone call to the family, if a guardian doesn’t set up a trial date, the Red Hook Youth Court sends out two letters.

The first letter informs guardians that police have written up a report on the child’s offense, and that, “The existence of such a report can negatively affect your child if he is stopped by police in the future.” The second letter warns: “While the youth court process is voluntary, failure to respond to this notice will be noted in the precinct and youth court records.”

After reading about police consequences for their child’s offense, some guardians might imagine the Red Hook Youth Court is a branch of the police department rather than the nonprofit organization that it is. Although the letters that the Harlem coordinators send may differ from Red Hook, the process of approaching potential defendants and their families is similar.

Despite not knowing that the youth court process was voluntary, Jones said was glad that her daughter went through a trial. “I have no idea how we got here,” said Jones, “but she got a chance to see how it is in real-life situations.”

Deirdre said she thought her trial was “fair,” but she didn’t like squirming on the stand in front of older children.

“It felt scary,” she said.

KINDER, GENTLER VOCABULARY

The Harlem Youth Court coordinators said they understand that courtrooms can be frightening for children, especially since many of the defendants in youth court have been involved in custody battles at Family Court. So the youth court uses non-legal language to make children feel comfortable. The court calls prosecutors “community advocates” and defense attorneys “youth advocates.” Defendants are “respondents,” and sentences are “sanctions.”

But critics believe that even with euphemisms, a trial isn’t the way to deal with children’s bad behavior. Avis Tate, a social worker at the Community Therapeutic Day School in Lexington, Massachusetts said she worried that an adolescent jury without any training in child psychology wouldn’t be able to identify children whose bad behavior case from a serious underlying problem.

“If you have a girl who attacks a boy on a playground and she is an incest victim, you can have her do community service all day, and it won’t correct her problem,” said Tate. Tate pointed out that for children who have psychological problems or histories of trauma, the kind of peer pressure that the youth court runs on might be damaging.

“For kids who are in the early phases of a mental breakdown, that kind of peer pressure would not be helpful,” she said.

Margaret Loftus, a project associate at the Juvenile Justice Project, a Manhattan nonprofit dedicated to youth justice reform, said that she prefers youth programs that address kids’ needs outside of the courtroom.

“I’d rather see them in youth court than in regular court,” said Loftus. “But if you take them to an environment they’ve never been in before, it’s not going to work.” Loftus said although the courtroom process could alienate a child, the Harlem community program seemed like a “bright spot” compared to the New York State court system.

Loftus said one of the goals of the Juvenile Justice Project is to communicate to the court system that taking youth offenders out of their communities to punish them doesn’t work. The state spends $141,000 per child per year to detain adolescents from New York City in remote facilities upstate, yet about 80 percent of the detainees go on to commit more crimes after they serve.

Another organization trying to reform the criminal justice system is the Washington based Sentencing Project. Executive Director Malcolm Young has been working to develop alternatives to what he believes is an overly punitive court system in the United States. Young said he had noticed a growing trend in youth programs toward punishment-oriented models. Young said he liked the idea of peer mediation for children, but he wasn’t sure the process belonged in a courtroom.

“The idea of having kids discuss problems among themselves, that could be very con-structive,” he said. “But why does it have to follow a judicial model? Why don’t we have kids who do social work or peer counseling?”

MEASURING “SUCCESS”

There’s no real proof whether or not the Harlem Youth Court “works.” The coordinators measure success by the number of defendants who complete their sentences. Sered said that an average of 86 percent fulfilled their sanctions last year. But the coordinators said they had no way of knowing whether the court had achieved its goal of preventing children from committing more serious crimes later on in their lives. Although some defendants stay involved and a few go through training to become members of the Youth Court themselves, the court does not officially track defendants after they complete their sentences.

Fagan said that even if the youth court did more follow-up work with former defendants, the sample of kids would be so small that it would be difficult to make any meaningful claims about the success of the court. For every 100 kids that the police refer to youth court, only about 20 percent end up at hearings.

“They get a tiny fraction of the number of kids who get into this,” said Fagan. “And I don’t know if you can argue that these kids are less likely to get involved in crime.”

After a defendant completes the sentence, the youth court coordinators say they send a note to the police precinct that opened a file on the defendant.

But at the Red Hook Youth Court, coordinator Kathy Barker was uncertain if anyone followed up with the police precinct to make sure youth court participation was noted in the child’s file.

And officer Paul Grudzinski of the 76th Police Precinct in Brooklyn said that although the police did note referral to the Red Hook Youth Court in children’s files, they never recorded the outcome.

“We note referral, but not sentence completion,” said Grudzinski. Police officers in Harlem were unavailable to comment on whether they followed up on a child’s youth court progress in his or her file.

Deirdre started doing her assigned community service on the Saturday following her trial. The Harlem Youth Court runs a program on Saturday mornings for children whose sentences include community service. Together with the adult coordinators, the children plan and implement service projects such as bake sales and clean-up days.

At 11, Deirdre has just entered the phase of adolescence during which most youth offenders first get into trouble. Her mother hopes that the youth court had taught Deirdre “a lesson she won’t forget,” but that she was nervous about the years to come in her daughter’s life. Neither her son nor her many nieces and nephews had ever had any involvement with the police.

“She’s the first,” said Alice Jones.

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