Understanding that actions have consequences and that your behavior can directly impact others is a big part of growing up. For many teens, it can be one of the more challenging aspects of the transition to independence. And for some teens, the learning curve is steep, and may even include run-ins with law enforcement due to criminal behavior such as shoplifting, truancy or assault.
Recognizing the need for community-based solutions to the challenge of helping youth offenders, King County Superior Court launched the Bellevue Youth Court program in 2008 with the City of Bellevue and other local partners. The program aims to help first and second-time offenders understand the impact their choices have on others, and serves as an alternative to traditional juvenile justice systems.
What’s unique about Youth Court programs like the one in Bellevue is that students serve as volunteers for all the jobs in the legal process – judges, jurors, bailiffs, clerks, as well as prosecuting and defending advocates. There are approximately 20-to-24 of these programs across the state, and about 1500 nationwide.
How does it work? Prosecuting and defense advocates present relevant facts about the case to a jury. For example, the prosecuting advocate might review the police report and other evidence about the crime. Then, the defense advocate shares the accused’s side of the story, which may include information about efforts undertaken to make amends, such as punishment at home.
To participate in the program, teens forego determinations of guilt/innocence and instead agree in advance to the interventions and strategies developed by the volunteer jurors and advocates, such as community service or an after-school program. Once the agreed-to requirements and programs are completed, the youth reports back to Court on progress made (known as a “Completion Hearing“). If successful, the teen earns praise and recognition from the program’s leaders and participants.
A different theory of justice – Restorative justice brings together the offender, the victims and the community at large to help mediate a solution. Bellevue Youth Court’s program uses this approach to help teens understand their conduct has tangible impact in their communities. Teens learn that crimes like shoplifting or property damage aren’t victimless. They have real costs that are passed on to other shoppers, or to property owners/renters who must pay for the cleanup. Put simply, the victim of a crime is your own community.
The community in turn shows its compassion by giving youths the opportunity to share their perspective and take responsibility for their conduct. Recognizing every person has a unique life story, and that people are more complex than any single action they take on any given day, restorative justice looks to rehabilitate teens by providing supports to help them learn to make better choices. So, teens get to share their perspective, which helps create buy-in around the solution.
What participants learn – Helena Stephens, Teen Services Supervisor with the City of Bellevue, says going through the program helps youths better understand the serious implications of what might seem like petty criminal behavior. For example, if a teen convicted of shoplifting at Bellevue Square Mall later shows up on the mall’s premises for any reason, that same teen could be charged and convicted of trespassing. For the volunteers, Stephens observes the program “has been an effective way for young people to contribute to the juvenile justice system” and take their civic responsibilities like jury duty seriously as adults. In fact, some program volunteers end up pursuing careers in the criminal justice system.
Programs like Bellevue Youth Court provide a community-based solution to challenges faced by teens in their initial encounters with the juvenile justice system. You can follow the program on Facebook here.
Matthew Le, a sophomore at Bellevue Big Picture School, worked with EEN on the research, writing and interviews used in preparation for this article.