Restorative Justice in Marin: Youth Court

Photo credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/joegratz/117048243

In 2015 I signed up for a program called Youth Court at Branson’s Community Engagement Fair. I didn’t come around to attending one of the trials until last month when I found myself free on a Thursday night and decided to try it out.

Teenagers cited for minor crimes can commit to Youth Court, an alternative program that allows them to avoid the juvenile criminal system. In choosing to follow this path, the respondent must appear before a court of peers; they have the chance to explain the incident surrounding the crime from their perspective and then answer questions asked by the jury and two advocates. The judge, the only adult involved in the trial, then concludes the questioning.

After the two advocates give their recommendations for the next leg of the respondent’s path, the jurors are left to deliberate and determine the amount of community engagement and jury duties they believe the respondent should complete. The jury also can recommend that the respondent participate in other programs like therapy, tutoring, or extra jury duties.

When I attended Youth Court for the first time, I instantly loved serving on the jury. The model centers around two main ideas: accountability and restorative justice. The respondent enters the courtroom having already accepted responsibility for their actions, so the trial is not about dissecting a crime and naming someone guilty. Instead, the jurors ask questions about the respondent: their passions, family and social life, extracurricular activities, academic interests, etc. This helps the jurors develop a more nuanced understanding of why the respondent did what they did and consequently determine the best plan for them. Oftentimes the jurors’ questions cause the respondent to pause and think before they’re able to articulate a response. This is my favorite part of Youth Court because I feel like the respondent has the chance to reflect deeply about their actions in a way that they may have never done on their own, which is particularly important in cases that involve substance abuse.

Because Youth Court is run by teenagers, including many former-respondents, the trial takes place in an open and supportive environment. It seems like the respondent usually feels comfortable opening up with the court to share details about the incident and offer a window into their personal life.

So many teenagers make poor decisions, and it’s really devastating to end up with a criminal record at such a young age. Youth Court offers teenagers a second chance, leaving them with a clean record, but the process encourages them to reflect on and change habits so that they don’t end up in a similar place again. Often, punishment doesn’t incite lasting change in a teenager’s behavior; Youth Court’s model works well to focus on creating plans for the respondent that allow them to grow as they help their community. Community engagement hours can help a respondent fill idle time, find new passions, and connect with more people. I think assigning the respondent jury duties that they must complete is the most important aspect of the program because listening to others who struggle with similar issues can help them understand their own and feel less alone.

Emma Hirschkop, a Branson junior, began volunteering at Youth Court five years ago and said that it has “fundamentally changed how [she] view[s] so much of the world.” She entered the program with a minimal understanding of substance abuse, so Youth Court has shaped her perception of these issues. Emma explained, “I ha[ve] grown to realize that there is always a reason why people do what they do, whether that is trespassing onto a construction site or smoking marijuana on school grounds.” She also appreciates Youth Court as an “interesting volunteer program” due to the “unique” nature of each case.

Audrey Poole, a Branson senior, also started participating in Youth Court five years ago. She has enjoyed the sense of community fostered in the courtroom because the jurors and advocates are all “able to relate to something that we all enjoy and share in common.” She also values the program for its restorative approach to youth crime and believes that “it’s a more meaningful process.” In particular, Audrey has enjoyed her work as an advocate in the court. She said, “It’s been nice to help someone and come up with a good restorative plan. It’s a nice feeling.”