The Problem May Be the Solution

The idea for a youth court in Washington, D.C., was first conceived in 1968 by a law professor smitten with a bit of Martin Luther King fever.

Three decades later, Ed Cahn's dream became a reality. And like King's, Cahn's dream was based on a nightmarish observation. "The juvenile justice system was serving as the feeder -- the supply line -- into adult prisons," he explains on our way to his home in the Friendship Heights neighborhood.

Then, without a hint of cynicism in his voice, Cahn ticks off the numbers. "In Washington, D.C., over 50 percent of young black males between the ages of 18 and 24 are now under court supervision -- either in prison, on parole, or on probation."

The journey, he says, starts with a juvenile's first brush with the law and the response they get. The first response, as you might expect in an overburdened system, is one of benign neglect. The prosecutors are more concerned with hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

"That's how it begins. But by the third arrest, the formal juvenile proceeding functions as a rite of passage rather than a chance to choose a different path. Without meaning to, the juvenile system is turning young kids into hardened criminals faster than any gang in town."

The 1996 court decree that established the D.C. Youth Court describes it as a "diversion program" that provides a "meaningful alternative to the traditional adjudicatory format in juvenile cases" for "nonviolent first-time offenders."

In laymen's terms, that means if a youth is arrested for the first time in his or her life for some kind of petty crime, they get a second chance to get their act together without it going on their record.

The youth court revolves around youth juries composed of former offenders, empowered to question incoming offenders about their crime and circumstances, and then impose a sentence on the "respondent."

After a hearing in which a youth jury questions both the respondent and his or her parent(s), the jury deliberates as only street-savvy youngsters can.

They discuss, and sometimes debate, different aspects of the testimony in trying to decide how they are going to hold the respondent accountable, while at the same time providing a dose of positive peer pressure with the hopes of diverting another one of their peers from the road-too-frequently-taken -- the road that ends in being "dead or locked up."

A standard sentence includes jury duty for eight Saturday hearings, which gives youth court staff, working in tandem with court and Department of Mental Health officials, a chance to make an assessment of whatever social services the respondent and his or her family may need.

Typically, youth court juries also impose an array of other instruments of accountability such as requiring the respondent to write an essay reflecting on the offense committed, offering "sincere" apologies to the victim and/or their own family, doing up to 90 hours of community service, enrolling in a mentoring or drug abuse program, and paying restitution to the victim.

Does the youth court reduce recidivism? The jury is still out, given the lack of empirical evidence and the short time that the court has been in existence. But it certainly appears that, at least for some kids, the court has helped give them a sense of importance and responsibility, as well as inspire in some a sense of service to the broader community.

Tameka Linzy, a 13-year-old eighth-grader attending Jefferson Junior High School, says she's been so inspired by the youth court that she has become a volunteer juror even though she's finished her sentence.

"What I like about it the best is learning new things. And I like to help people," Linzy says, noting that since she's become involved in youth court she now has her sights set on being a lawyer.

So, while the president offers up space dreams, right under his nose is a dream-based reality much more worthy of taxpayer money than digging for Mars minerals on behalf of corporate America or building military bases on the moon from which to dominate earth, as U.S. Space Command documents clearly show and the "liberal" media has all but ignored.

For more information about the Youth Court go to www.timedollar.org/Applications/juvenile%20justice.htm.

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