Peer pressure is often cited as a negative influence among teenagers, often prodding them into doing things they know are dangerous or illegal, from substance abuse to anti-social behavior and crime.
Youth Court taps the power of peer pressure to produce a much more positive outcome. Founded roughly 20 years ago as an early intervention strategy for middle- and high-school teens, the diversion program is now in place in about 1,400 communities around the country.
"Youth Courts serve as an adjunct to the traditional juvenile justice system," explains local Program Director Tonya Clenney. "They address the early stages of juvenile delinquency by bringing teenage offenders of infractions and misdemeanors before a jury of their peers."
Youth Court first came to the Tri-Valley early in 2008 and is now held on the first Tuesday evening of every month at the Gale-Schenone Courthouse on Stoneridge Drive. Clenney underscores the strong impact the program has on young offenders as they listen to the response of their contemporaries. "Young people pay attention when someone of their own age says, 'hey, you made a mistake, and it's time to be responsible and accept the consequences of your actions,'" she notes. "When an adult says that, it's not as powerful."
Tri-Valley cases, which can involve issues ranging from fighting to petty theft, are referred to the local court by the police departments of Dublin, Livermore, or Pleasanton. If a family decides to participate - the program is entirely optional - the parents and teen meet with Clenney to review all requirements. They must agree to attend court and fulfill all sanctions and to avoid such trouble in the future.
The court itself is an all-volunteer operation, staffed by both adults and students, whose participation qualifies to fulfill school community service requirements. A teen volunteer acts as the offender's "attorney" or advocate; they discuss the details of the offense and together they decide how the juvenile will present the case to the peer jury. The jury has adult mentors who serve as facilitators, leading the deliberations and making sure they stay on track. Adult mentors also work with the teen advocates, coaching them on speaking skills and building a logical case. An adult judge, usually a local attorney, ensures proceedings are orderly, and an adult case manager goes over sentencing requirements with the teen.
Sentencing focuses on constructive sanctions: community service, jury duty, life choices or anger management classes, apologies (in writing or face-to-face), and even restitution, all based on "restorative justice principles." Throughout the process, "emphasis is placed on maintaining respectful treatment of offenders and minimizing negative labeling," Clenney comments.
Offenders who satisfy all their commitments wind up with no criminal record. A low recidivism rate testifies to the program's effectiveness, and the reductions in both crime and the cost of processing offenders through the juvenile court system are of great benefit to the community. If you are interested in learning more, especially about volunteer positions, please visit www.communityyouthcourts.com for more information.
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