Justice 101: Students Take Their Problems to Court

Almost any day’s headlines will spell out our society’s deeply held but contradictory assertions: Young people are the problem, and young people are the solution.

The first belief shows up in news of gang conflicts and school shootings and petty crimes— top-of-the-hour news for most local TV stations. The second typically hides in newspapers’ back pages: stories about the political action, community service, and concern for the future that speak of youth’s passion for fairness and hopes for peace.

Yet the very tendency to test limits that tends to get young people in trouble can sometimes provide an opportunity for them to develop their drive for justice and their longing for understanding and respect. Across the country, several remarkable projects are bringing young people into dialogue with each other and their communities, restoring peace to situations rife with conflict, and creating non-adversarial solutions in distressing situations. The national Youth Court movement, featured here in Harlem, New York, helps teenagers practice the skills of the legal system—evaluating evidence, considering multiple perspectives, deliberating thoughtfully—as they create appropriate sentences for peers who have committed offenses. City at Peace, in the nation’s capital, brings together young people from widely different backgrounds to create theatre pieces that express their differences and commonalities. And peacemaking rituals drawn from native traditions are helping make a safe space for mutual communication that can heal even deep-rooted conflicts young people experience both in school and in the community.


What lies behind the successes of these initiatives, all of which draw on time-honored ways of promoting connection and responsible action? Does their emphasis on honest self-reflection make them especially appealing to adolescents impatient with the hypocrisies of the system? These stories explore the answers, through conversations with the young people involved and the adult mentors who guide them. They also present some of the practical aspects of their challenges, as a generation comes of age whose members will, more than any before, need the courage and skill to make peace and justice take root in our world.

Madamaache has had plenty of arguments in her 17 years, and she is ready to argue again now. A boy of 11 has been suspended from school for making a lewd gesture at a teacher, and she thinks the whole affair has been trumped up by kids who don't like him.

In another life, Madama concedes later, her opinions might have erupted into a shouting match spiced with the street language of her Harlem neighborhood. But on this autumn Thursday afternoon, she stands instead before a black-robed Dena, 14, and uses the language of the court to take the young boy's side.

"Today's case is supposed to be a serious case, but in fact it is nothing but a lie," she declares. "The teacher heard hearsay from students, and I'm going to give you a little outline about how it went. The kids told the teacher; the teacher told the principal; and the principal gave my client a suspension. I ask that you listen to this case clearly and understand that my client is innocent."

Six jurors in Harlem Youth Court t-shirts listen with the cautious air of people who know their hearsay from their hard facts. For months, these teenagers have been practicing their roles twice weekly after school, learning the workings of the justice system and meting out sentences to young offenders.

In the process, said their mentor Jabari Osaze, they acquire valuable skills in critical thinking, active listening, consensus building, and public speaking. They learn how neutral language can de-escalate potentially volatile situations. And they gain a new understanding of balancing rights and responsibilities in an environment where youth voices rarely matter to adults.

Trying to draw the youngster out, the jurors ask questions of the respondent, frustrated at times because his responses, some barely audible, shed little light on the matter at hand.
Later, in a secluded jury room, jurors puzzle through the pieces of the tangled case before them. Unlike in adult court, their charge is not to determine guilt or innocence but to come up with an appropriate sentence. Respondents appearing in Harlem Youth Court have acknowledged their wrongdoing and agreed to accept the jury's judgment in exchange for bypassing traditional Family Court. Nonetheless, to decide on a suitable sentence, jurors inevitably consider exactly what an offender has done wrong. In the current case, for instance, the panel worries about Madama's contention that the charge is unfair:

Juror (1): I understand that he's 11, in fifth grade. Maybe he was nervous in his reactions. But he wouldn't answer appropriately--just yes or no--when we were looking for more detail. I think he did do what they said he did--he wouldn't be here if he didn't. If he's here, he must have done something.

Juror (2): I don't think he did anything wrong. He was new in the school--he had no friends. And the teacher knew the students who were there already, so she would believe them first.

Juror (3): I think he did it--why would somebody make up a lie about someone threatening a teacher?


Some think they should assign the boy no punishment at all. Others argue that his attitude speaks of guilt, and warrants a substantive sentence. In the end, they assign the youngster ten hours of community service at the Harlem Art Park, a neighborhood recreation area. Youth Court sentences always entail community service; sometimes respondents must also write essays, offer apologies, or make restitution for the damage they have done.

"I thought the sentence was fair," says Dena, the eighth-grade presiding judge in the proceedings, when the group gathers for a debriefing and critique after the case is closed. "The jury didn't like his attitude, but he wasn't here for that. He was here for harassing the teacher."

Jabari Osaze, who has constantly mentored the court's proceedings, warmly offers both support for each student's work and critical feedback. "Judge, I'm getting much more comfortable with the way you run the room," he says. "I think you organize the room very well. You feel comfortable asking people to speak up, you feel comfortable ad libbing in some cases! You're doing a very good job of using what you know the authority of the judge is." He continues in a more critical vein. "A few times you were a little bit harsher on the youth respondent than you should have been. But it's important that you make sure we can hear what he says."

Helping Offenders Re-Connect

An initiative of the Harlem Center for Court Innovation, the Harlem Youth Court is just one of some 800 youth courts across the nation. Local programs vary considerably; some work with adult judges, for example, others with youth judges. In Alaska, teen courts actually determine determine innocence or guilt. But most, like the Harlem Youth Court, review acknowledged offenses to decide on appropriate sentences.

These programs illustrate well the differences between Youth Court and adult court. Youth Court jurors are able to question a respondent directly, to expand their understanding of the offender, his or her motivation, and the circumstances of the misdeed. Soliciting such information, as today's Harlem case shows, is often a challenge when jurors encounter a reticent or nervous respondent. Despite this difficulty, the approach has its advantages.

"In adult court, it's like both sides [are] working against each other," explains Juston, 17, a Harlem court member. "But in youth court we work with each other. The community advocate and the youth advocate and the jury, we're all here for one purpose, to help the youth respondent be responsible for what he or she has done."

Indeed, a growing trend in many youth courts seeks not just to dole out punishment but to help restore young transgressors to a productive role in their community. This emphasis on "restorative justice" focuses less on testimony, procedure, and evidence and more on dialogue and understanding. While taking into account the crime's impact on the victim, this approach also acknowledges that the offense has harmed the entire community--and attempts to right the balance, bringing the offender into a more healthy balance with those around him.

Imposing a sentence of community service, for example, youth court jurors often consider how the offender's strengths could benefit the community as well as how the service might help the offender along a new path. The youngster sentenced to work in the Harlem Art Park will come into frequent contact with the Youth Court team that operates from the courthouse next door. "This is a young person that just moved to a new school, and he's a little bit uncomfortable there," Jabari Osaze noted. "Perhaps being with some people who can be supportive and positive will help him. We'll even see whether he's interested in doing Youth Court himself."

Assigning young offenders to participate as court members is a common tactic. Peter, an 18-year-old from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, recalled such a sentence in a shoplifting case he helped prosecute in the Peer Review Court of Linn County. During the trial the offender seemed "not to be repentant at all," he said, but the sentence required her to participate as a juror in at least two youth courts, in addition to her probation or community service. "She went above and beyond that call, and actually became a volunteer. She started going to school more, she stopped hanging around with her old friends, and her life really turned around."

Another successful strategy of youth courts around the country is the use of mediation--both in training for court members and in sentencing offenders. Oregon teens involved with the Stayton Sublimity Youth Court, for example, receive training in mediation from third-year law students at Willamette University. "It's a good way to get problems solved," said Kirsten, a Stayton participant attending a national conference of youth courts last year. Mediation also serves as an effective tool for bringing offenders into productive dialogue with their victims--and importantly with their parents. "One kid stole some items from Buy-Mart, and there wasn't much trust between him and his parents," Kirten recalled, "so part of the sentence was to go through mediation. He had to give an in-court apology to his mom, and they hugged and were both crying."

Changing Attitudes and Habits

Youth court members recognize and appreciate their power to help turn around their peers' lives. It is for this reason that Peter, the Oregon participant, most enjoys the defense attorney's role. "You get to know the person better," he said. "You get that hands-on feeling that you're really changing someone's life, helping them take a step in the right direction."

But Youth Court aims to help its volunteers as well as the offenders. Many of these young court members freely admit that they themselves have committed the same offenses for which they are now sentencing their peers. But after a time, Osaze said, the typical Harlem Youth Court member "is truant less, acts more appropriately in public, does not hop the turnstile." As they grow increasingly aware that actions have consequences, Osaze continued, "they begin to look at their options differently. They really do learn from each other."

And they see how they themselves are changing. Madama says she has learned to act differently when conflicts arise within Harlem's close-knit team. "When we have problems, some of us take the leadership role and just say 'listen, let's do this and not have it escalate to a fight.'"

Adults mentors like Osaze play a large part in that process--which is no simple task. "One of the most difficult things in Youth Court training," he explained, "is trying to teach young people to disagree without being disagreeable. Adults have difficulty with that, and because I believe young people are a lot more honest than adults are, they have even more difficulty. Honesty doesn't necessarily have to be rudeness, though, and that's one of the things that we work with them on."

The ability to use this neutral language, Osaze continued, "is probably the skill that, when they really begin to understand, they use more than others in other environments. A neutral language speaker is a speaker that can be effective in business, in college, in academia--almost anywhere."

That these young people's career aspirations have also changed after the Youth Court experience seems to indicate that they get his point. "We actually play out the roles that are real live things that you can be when you grow older," says Yohany, 17, who now hopes for a career in law enforcement. "If I can do this here I can take it to another level."

Dena, the 14-year-old judge, bluntly agrees. "In school, I don't have control. They don't have to listen to nothing I say," she says. "Here, you have to listen to me. I want to be a lawyer when I grow up."

Understand the importance of honest news ?

So do we.

The past year has been the most arduous of our lives. The Covid-19 pandemic continues to be catastrophic not only to our health - mental and physical - but also to the stability of millions of people. For all of us independent news organizations, it’s no exception.

We’ve covered everything thrown at us this past year and will continue to do so with your support. We’ve always understood the importance of calling out corruption, regardless of political affiliation.

We need your support in this difficult time. Every reader contribution, no matter the amount, makes a difference in allowing our newsroom to bring you the stories that matter, at a time when being informed is more important than ever. Invest with us.

Make a one-time contribution to Alternet All Access, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you.

Click to donate by check.

DonateDonate by credit card
Donate by Paypal

Don't Sit on the Sidelines of History. Join Alternet All Access and Go Ad-Free. Support Honest Journalism.