One of the ACLU's largest and most pressing issues is the problem of overincarceration, and we are focused on criminal justice reform and the reduction of recidivism. Most people interested in such things have heard of the term "the revolving door." This proverbial door symbolizes the perpetual cycle for convicted people through the phases of our flawed justice system: get caught, receive your sentence, do time, leave jail with little financial, emotional or education support, repeat the behavior, etc. This revolving door assures that from the very moment that the judge pronounces you guilty (or even before that) your chances of returning to jail or prison increase by a staggering 43% within the next three years according to a 2011 study. This is simply not an acceptable statistic for a nation, and only contributes to other dismal statistics such as prison costs, unemployment and homelessness. Our judicial system cannot continue as it has, while people continnue to cycle through jails and prisons.
So, what do we do? The answer is start early. At-risk youth are one of the most important targets to address so that in later years these young men and women can contribute positively to society, not become another passenger in the revolving door. Last summer here in Maine, an organization called Youth Move Maine decided that this issue was simply too important to ignore any longer. A grant and two employees later, Maine Youth Court was born, to directly tackle this enormous issue of how to reduce recidivism early and how to get kids back on the "right" path, so to speak.
Youth Court is one the many initiatives all over the country that recognizes that in order to change such a drastic and long-term issue one must think a little bit outside of the box. We can't change anything until we change the system, or at least provide an alternative to the standard judicial process. Additionally, Youth Court tackles a problem with growing recognition: the harmful practice of suspension or expulsion. The theory is that if a adolescent has committed a crime, ejecting and isolating this individual from their school community or extracurricular strengths has a backwards effect and only increases the likelihood that the teen will repeat their behavior. At-risk teens are often faced with myriad problems which require support, whether the issue is family life, substance abuse or peer pressure, and in order to truly address the root of one's "bad" behavior so that it does not occur again is to provide this support and strengthen a youth's bond with his or her community. That is exactly what Youth Court does.
The Youth Court process involves referrals of first time offender High School or Middle School aged youth who have committed minor infractions such as possession, vandalism or theft. The youth are referred either directly by their schools as an alternative to suspension or expulsion, or by police officers, Juvenile Community Corrections Officers, or by the court as a diversion from a traditional punitive process. The Youth Court procedure will also not be on the youth's permanent record. The most unique aspect of Youth Court is that it is nearly entirely youth run. High school volunteers perform roles as either advocates or judges to complete a hearing where a disposition is decided for the respondent, the Youth Court term for defendant. The disposition can include anything from letters of apology, mandated weekly time with mom or playing basketball with the younger members of the Boys and Girls Club. The disposition is created by the judges with four fundamental goals: repair the harm done by the crime, build knowledge, skills and resources for the respondent, create connections for the youth in their community, family or otherwise and build strengths by customizing the disposition according to interests of strengths. The respondent is given three months to complete their disposition and incompletion could result in a return to the court, the school or wherever the first alley of punishment was.
The purpose of Youth Court is to provide an environment where youth are truly given a voice and to create an alternative plan to a punitive sentence, one which focuses on education and fostering stronger relationships and values. I have been a volunteer for Youth Court since December 2012. Personally, I must confess that initially I was not a believer. However, that is one of the major issues with creating true change in the criminal justice system - for adults or youth. This nation has become so universally accustomed to the status quo that many have come to accept the revolving door not as a clear indicator of a major error in our system, but as "just the way it is."
Working with Youth Court has been astonishingly eye-opening because, contrary to the cynical voice of 2012 in the back of my mind, the process actually works. One success story is the case of Chris* who was caught for possession and use of marijuana on school property. His high school awarded him "student of the semester" before his Youth Court disposition had even been completed. No, Youth Court is not Maine's silver bullet, but without these grassroots movements contributing town by town, county by county, how are we ever going to see true change?
And if you aren't quite a believer yet, want more info, or want to speak to a Youth Court manager visit this page to read more.
*names have been changed