Fusion- The Brownsville Youth Court hears low-level cases for first-time offenders between 10 and 18, like Garrett, who was arrested for stealing an umbrella. And unlike regular court, the jurors, judges, and attorneys, too, are all kids.
The members of the court, who come from area high schools and community organizations, are between the ages of 14 and 18. They undergo 40 hours of training, culminating in a mock “bar exam,” before they’re allowed to hear their peers’ cases — a service for which the young court volunteers receive a small monthly stipend.
Misdemeanor cases are referred to the court at the discretion of schools, the police, or the city’s probation department. Adult staffers closely follow each case and report back to the “referral source” after the child offenders have served their “sanction,” which entails community service, written apologies, or counseling. Youth court, unlike the normal juvenile justice process, doesn’t send kids to jail.
The Brownsville program is one of more than 1,000 youth court diversion programs across the country that aim to keep first-time offenders out of the court system. That’s no small thing: Numerous studies show entry into the criminal courts, no matter how small the reason, increases a child’s odds of committing more serious crimes down the road. One study found that children who were referred to youth court were significantly less likely to be recycled into to the juvenile system for new offenses. While estimates vary, sending a kid to youth court costs about $500 — a sweet deal for taxpayers, who can dole out between $2,000 and $5,500 dollars for criminal juvenile proceedings.
More than 2,000 kids are arrested each year all over Brooklyn, most for non-violent offenses. Since launching in 2011, the Brownsville court has heard 353 cases.