New Castle News

June 8, 2013

Youth courts could nip problems in the bud

John Finnerty

CNHI — While there have been major changes in the juvenile justice system in the wake of the “Kids-for-Cash” scandal, some advocates believe Pennsylvania has failed to widely embrace efforts to fully focus on rehabilitating troubled young people.

Once of the more innovative efforts in Pennsylvania involves the use of youth courts, in which young people themselves mete out justice for their peers.

Every role in court is taken by a student: judge, bailiff, defense attorney and jury.

The jurors question the accused and then come up with a recommendation for restorative justice.

Gregg Voltz has overseen the development of youth courts based in schools in Chester and Philadelphia. In those settings, the youth courts principally deal with violations of school rules — things such as skipping school or mouthing off to teachers.

In other places, the youth court model is integrated right into the juvenile court system.

Voltz said that youth court won’t work in all cases. There must be a separate juvenile court process to handle serious crimes.

But many of the minor infractions that first land young people in trouble can be better handled by youth court. It’s important because there is ample evidence that the way Pennsylvania’s courts deals with first-time offenders does not work, Voltz said.

A new study by the Juvenile Court Judges Commission found that 20 percent of juveniles who were involved in a case in 2007 were later arrested for another crime. The study found that family life played a significant role in the outcome. Eighty percent of the young people who continued to break the law after their first arrest were from homes in which the parents were divorced, one or more parent was dead or the parents had never married.

There have been several studies that have examined the effectiveness of youth court as a part of the traditional juvenile court system. In all cases, researchers determined that it appeared youth courts were working.

But Voltz said that one of the fundamental weaknesses in the juvenile justice system is that it essentially criminalizes behavior that years ago would have been dealt with by parents. The youth courts work by providing a better way of helping young people adjust their behavior, he said.

“We’re supposed to be educating kids, trying to teach them to be decent, functioning people.”

Three years ago, as lawmakers were scrambling to make sense of how to reform juvenile justice in Pennsylvania, Voltz and two Chester High School students traveled to Harrisburg.

One of those students, Jamar Sanders, described how youth court kept him out of a criminal gang and prompted him to refocus his energies to save his grades.

“At the end of my freshman year, I had a 1.4 GPA, not good. Now at the end of my junior year, I have a 3.9 GPA,” Sanders said in his testimony. “Without youth court, I would probably still be roaming streets, still in ninth grade hanging out with the wrong crowd and not thinking about my future.”

After the testimony, impressed lawmakers asked Voltz to draft model legislation spelling out how youth courts could be rolled out across Pennsylvania.

Working with University of Pennsylvania students, Voltz gathered youth court legislation from across the nation to cull the best ideas to use in Pennsylvania. Their work completed, they provided the proposed bill to two senators.

And then nothing but waiting.

“Making something happen to change is difficult,” Voltz said.