Role of Youth Courts in Juvenile Justice Policy Hearing Written Testimony

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David G. Blake, Esquire

Dear Committee Members:

I am a former practicing attorney in Pennsylvania, now semi-retired and operating a Bed and Breakfast in the Finger Lakes Region of New York. While I was practicing, I had the good fortune to be actively involved with the Youth Court Program that was started in the Chester-Upland School District. The years I spent working with the teachers and students were among the most enjoyable and rewarding of my 40+ year legal career. Indeed, from my days as a criminal defense attorney, or in civil litigation and on to my years representing suburban municipalities and school districts or as a court appointed mediator, I believe that I accomplished more and had greater impact on lives being involved with the Youth Court Program than in any other law related field.

Initially, those of us assisting with the program had a fear that the students would resist participation and that the program would not succeed despite our best efforts; the students proved us wrong. As I recall, within a few short months of training the participating students, they had more cases than they could handle. It was readily apparent that the students whose activities were being scrutinized, were more trusting of their peers than of the teaching and administrative staff. Interestingly, because the students knew each other outside of school, were aware of family issues and past behavior, those serving on the Youth Court were sometimes sensitive and more often, critical of those appearing before them; yet, they handled the dispositions with great empathy. This then resulted in the Youth Court gaining acceptance and respect.

For many of the active participants, the Youth Court program was both developmental and educational. The students learned how to gain respect and to respect others, that they could disagree without being disrespectful, that they could listen to someone explain why some action took place and creatively determine a fair resolution. Many learned the joy and benefits of real learning, to ask questions and to simply question why, to create a dialogue and to seek answers on their own. The end result was that several students decided to pursue a post high school degree, something that had been unthinkable prior to their Youth Court experience. Several of those that did attend college returned voluntarily to assist with training of other students for the continuation of the Youth Court in the Chester-Upland School District.

I worked with the high school students and then the middle school students and in my final year I also worked with the kindergarten students and even at that young level, growth and understanding was remarkable. In close cooperation with the teachers, we led discussions on anti-bullying, good snitch/bad snitch and using hands for good activities and not for hitting or punching as we also discussed conflict resolution. The students “got it” very quickly and shared stories and preemptively sought assistance for a problem before it became a larger one.

I believe that the Youth Court experience is very worthwhile,  its can reach out at so many levels and affect so many people at ages where positive behavior can be developed and appreciated, where the reasons for laws can be understood, where the means of changing laws explained and where your neighbor is accorded respect. I witnessed the changes in the minds and behavior of the students in Chester and in the process saw changes in myself as well. As a middle class white suburban raised man, I was initially somewhat unnerved by the prospect of instructing a group of growing teens in a primarily African American and Hispanic population; but those nerves were quickly set aside by mutually earned respect. …one of the very attributes we were seeking to teach. As a society, we need to see and hear from one another and to really listen as opposed to being ready with a reply and I and the students were on that same page in rapid fashion and we continued to learn from each other.

In short, I ask that your Policy Committee support the ongoing development of a Youth Court within the Pennsylvania public school system. Interestingly, I have moved to a small rural community outside of Ithaca, NY, a city that was one of the first in an east coast state to have an active Youth Court program within the school system. Small world.

Atentamente,

David G. Blake

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Dylan Matusek, City Year AmeriCorps Member

Dear Committee Members:

My name is Dylan Matusek. I am humbling serving a Second Term as a City Year AmeriCorps Members. If I have learned anything from my two years of working in some of the highest need public schools in Philadelphia, it is that students seldom respond to “hard” discipline. Suspensions, detentions, and most other forms of punishments often have shown themselves to me as 1) ineffective tools of learning and 2) barriers to the students’ learning. I had often questioned if there was a better way.

My questions were answered last year when I sat in on my first Youth Court hearing at Dimner Beeber Middle School. I was amazed, shocked even! I had never seen anything like it before. Students (some of them students I was tutoring) spoke to each other with a level of respect that I only sometimes saw prior. They addressed one another by name and waited for their turn before speaking. They also thought critically, asking great questions of their respondents and working together to solve cases fairly. At the end of the hearing, the jury decided on community service and a written apology as due justice for the respondent’s misconduct. I was so happy that it was normal procedure for both a reflective and restorative treatment to behavioral issues.

Afterwards I spoke with Gregg Volz to learn more about the Youth Court system. It didn’t take much to convince me to help and in the next few weeks Gregg, the students, and I worked to further develop the courts at Beeber. Gregg liked the courts for their opportunity to give students to build leadership skills and improve upon their own behavior. I liked the courts for their ability to offer an alternative to a strictly disciplinary system. In reflection I really like both aspects.

Everyone whom I have met who has sat in on a Youth Court hearing always walks out of the room with great things to say and they all left vouching support. For anyone who is unable to sit in on a hearing themselves, I feel compelled to speak now as an advocate for Youth Court. They are one of the most positive, enriching, and perhaps even amongst the most just endeavors our students can engage in. Everyone in the community (faculty, staff, students) benefits from Youth Court. I urge your Policy Committee continue its support of Youth Courts within the Pennsylvania public school system.

Yours in service

Dylan Matusek

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Adelita S. Grijalva - Associate Director for Teen Court
Dear Committee Members:

This letter is to serve as informational testimony at the May 24, 2016, public hearing regarding youth courts.

Pima County Teen Court and Teen Court in the Schools are programs of Pima Prevention Partnership (PPP), a 501c3 community-based organization based in Tucson, Arizona, that builds partnerships with young people, families and communities to improve their quality of life. Started in 1991 as a grassroots community coalition whose members convened to address adolescent substance abuse in Pima County, PPP is a leader in creating positive change at the individual, family, and community levels. PPP focuses on the needs of the most vulnerable populations. PPP programs serve more than 10,000 people each year in communities in Tucson and other parts of Arizona, the United States, and Pacific Island jurisdictions.

All of PPP’s programs, including Pima County Teen Court (PCTC) and Teen Court in the Schools (TCIS), were initiated as a result of a community-identified need and founded in evidence-based practices. Presided over by a host of professional judges from both Juvenile and Superior Courts, the Pima County Teen Court is a diversion program that uses the principles of restorative justice, coupled with sentencing options administered by a trained jury of juvenile peers to prevent recidivism.
Established in 1995 as a community response to the over-representation of minority youths in the Pima County juvenile justice system, the Pima County Teen Court has lowered juvenile recidivism risk of thousands of Pima County adolescents and successfully reduced delinquency among juveniles who have completed the program.

In contrast to many juvenile justice-based youth court programs, Pima County Teen Court is community-based. The Pima County Teen Court accepts referrals from Pima County Juvenile Court Center (PCJCC) for youth 12-17 arrested for crimes approved for diversion. Youths enter Teen Court by participating in a sentencing hearing where they account for the behavior that led up to their arrest. They are sentenced by a peer jury, presided over by an adult judge, to complete a set of constructive consequences, sentences designed to impart consequences for their crimes, address the harm caused, restore relationships, and increase participants’ skills.

PCTC holds hearings in two Tucson locations and has the capacity to hear up to 450 cases per year. Since its inception in 1995, more than 7,200 Teen Court hearings have taken place. PCTC is funded entirely by grants secured by PPP. The program is staffed by 1.8 FTE and has an annual budget of around $200,000.

The core components of PCTC, as conducted by PPP, include:

  • Recruiting, training, and recognizing youth and adult volunteers
  • Maintaining a courtroom and educational space for hearings and workshops
  • Facilitating/overseeing Teen Court hearings (2-4 court sessions per month hearing 5-20 cases at each)
  • Facilitating/overseeing all consequences assigned by the Teen Court jury (including jury duty, six different educational workshops offered twice per month, journal writing, and independent studies)
  • Managing the caseload of referrals for compliance
  • Communicating with PCJCC probation officers along with way ending with a report of compliance or non-compliance for the referred youth
  • Funding research and procurement, including grant and report writing
  • Program evaluation
  • Data management

Teen Court in the Schools is a school-based program supported by PPP but administered by individual schools. Since 1995, PPP has received various funding to specifically support aspects of TCIS (including expansion into high schools, facilitating/coordinating family strengthening workshops, and providing courtroom/classroom supplies), but funding for the main components of TCIS is provided by the individual school. Though funding for TCIS through PPP may wax and wane, it remains a core component of PPP’s commitment to the community. As such, the following basic services have been consistently available to Pima County schools regardless of funding availability:

  • Training of school staff to implement and maintain TCIS
  • Observations of classes and hearings to provide professional feedback
  • Technical assistance and troubleshooting with program implementation and maintenance
  • Presentations on juvenile law
  • Representation at the Arizona Teen Court Association and the National Association of Youth Courts

As programs of Pima Prevention Partnership, Pima County Teen Court and Teen Court in the Schools are benefitted by the indirect services provided by PPP, including:

  • Payroll
  • Human resources
  • Fund development
  • Grants and contract management
  • Accounting and billing

Arizona is home to many youth courts. Programs are fortunate to have the Arizona Teen Court Association (AzTCA) as an additional resource. AzTCA is a networking group created and guided by Arizona youth courts and maintained by the Arizona Foundation for Legal Services and Education. The mission of AzTCA is to support teen courts in Arizona that empower youth in their communities to help change negative and delinquent behavior in their peers. Its goals are to:

  • Promote sustainability and development of teen courts in Arizona
  • Offer a forum for networking among staff members of Teen Courts to exchange ideas and discuss issues thereby improving the administration of their programs
  • Educate youth
  • Foster civic engagement of youth to increase social and emotional well-being
  • Build collaborations that increase the effectiveness and consistency of Teen Court programs across Arizona
  • Promote and publicize Arizona Teen Courts

AzTCA also hosts an annual Youth Summit. Youth volunteers attend the summit to learn more about law-related education and law-related professions, network with other youth volunteers, and hone their court skills. Adult facilitators attend trainings on diversifying funding, constructing restorative consequences, implementing a youth court, and other topics related to running a successful youth court both within the schools and the community. Each year more than 100 youth volunteers participate.
Pima Prevention Partnership has found youth court to be an effective and efficient alternative to the juvenile justice system and one that can be readily duplicated in other communities.
To date, Pima County Teen Court staff has worked with advisors from Chester High School Youth Court and Philadelphia Youth Court to promote the youth court model. We are happy to continue this relationship for the good of our nation’s youth and heartily encourage the Pennsylvania Senate to offer its support as well.

Please contact us anytime for additional information or support.

Atentamente,

Adelita S. Grijalva
Associate Director

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Michael A. Ortiz Jr.

To whom it may concern:

My name is Michael Ortiz and I am a 2016 graduate of Drexel University’s Thomas R. Kline School of Law inaugural Two-Year Accelerated JD program.  I began participating in Youth Court through Education Works during my Spring 2L semester (the third semester of the accelerated program).  Drexel Law has a pro bono requirement for graduation and I enjoy working with children; therefore, Youth Court was a natural fit to fulfill that requirement.  What I didn’t expect, was how much I would get out of my participation.

The purpose of Drexel’s pro bono requirement is to instill a sense of community in the law school population.  Lawyers have a unique responsibility to be the gatekeepers of justice and fairness in society.  Drexel wants to ensure that we, as law students, learn early on that helping those most vulnerable is part of that responsibility.  Working with the indigent population within walking distance to the law school fits perfectly with Drexel’s program.

When I initially signed up for Youth Court, I was excited about the opportunity to work with children.  Having been raised by a single mom, I am well aware of the challenges these kids face every day.  My first session, Gregg Volz, the Youth Court Program Manager, asked me to address the class and make a “good opening statement.”  Having already completed my 1L year and gone through “cold call hell,” this should have been a simple and straightforward task; but, as I looked out at the classroom full of wide-eyed and attentive 7th graders, I was tongue-tied.  This wasn’t a class of my peers; this was a class of young learners who would take what I said as fact—that was a difficult notion to get over.

Once I got into a stride, Youth Court was fulfilling like no other experience I have gone through.  In every job interview I have been on, the interviewer brushes through my 10 year career in the U.S. Navy, speaks briefly about my two internships at public defender’s offices, and wants to know all about Youth Courts.  I am proud to exclaim that Youth Courts gave me the opportunity to grow as a public speaker, to gain confidence, and to research trial advocacy strategies and break them down to an understandable level for 7th graders—a task that will be very useful when preparing to address a jury of varied educational backgrounds.

I truly enjoy service to my country.  I stayed in the Navy Reserves through law school after 7 ½ years of Active Duty.  Youth Court gave me the opportunity to serve my community.  To hopefully form a lasting impression on children who don’t have the same chance of success that their peers living on the Main Line enjoy.  I hope to use the experience I gained in Youth Court to begin a career in public interest law after (hopefully) passing the bar in July.  I also hope one-day help to expand Youth Courts to every school in the United States.  It is a program that works for all:  the children who got in trouble, but are kept in school, and saved a suspension, through intervention by their peers; the participants who learn the rule of law, confidence, public speaking, writing skills, and the importance of a second chance; and the law students and lawyers who get the amazing opportunity to use their skills to give back to the community.

Michael A. Ortiz Jr.

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Carl Murset - Teacher

I have been a Social Studies teacher at South Philadelphia High School for the past 20 years.  I previously served as the Law and Justice Small Learning Community Coordinator and have been teaching Teen Court for the past 10 years.  Our Teen Court program has partnered with Communities in Schools, Temple University and Drexel University and currently works with the Pro Bono Society at Villanova Law School.  The Teen Court program has been a part of our school improvement plan and has been an integral part of our school culture for over a decade.

I truly believe in the merit and have seen the positive impact of Teen Courts and support any and all legislation to expand their influence in our schools.

Purpose of Teen Court

The Teen Court program puts legal knowledge to work by instituting a system of peer review and adjudication.  Staffed and operated by students, the Court hears disciplinary cases referred to it by teachers, the dean of discipline and our assistant principal. The purpose of Teen Court is to assist the student defendant in getting back on track after completion of his/her sentence.  Many students that have been defendants in the lower grades request Teen Court in their senior year.

Logistics for Implementation

Our school has a dedicated classroom built as a courtroom which includes a judge’s bench, witness stand and jury box.  We also have a dedicated jury room for deliberations.  The clerks have a computer and printer as well as file cabinets and shelves for the various papers needed for cases.  The Teen Court is a rostered class for seniors and counts as an elective credit.  Although a court room isn’t necessary, it does lend to the credibility and significance of the program.

Statistics

Over the past eight years our Teen Court has heard 788 cases.  The Court hears cases involving level one pink slip offenses as identified by the Code of Conduct for the School District of Philadelphia.  These offenses include but are not limited to disruption of class and school, cutting, excessive lateness to class or school, dress code violations, inappropriate language and profane or obscene language.  The following statistics are based on each year’s cases; not over the eight year span.  695 cases heard were for first time offenders, 75 cases were for 2nd offenses and 14 cases heard were for 3rd time offenders.    These statistics demonstrate the effectiveness of the Court.

Influence of Teen Court

In 2010 I had a senior student named Evan Riddick assigned to my Teen Court.  Evan was an exceptional student and young man.  After the classroom instructional phase of the class was over and we entered the Court to begin hands on training, it was clear that Evan was going to be an attorney.  Evan had the compassion to be a defense attorney and the presence to be the judge.  Evan finished that year serving as the bailiff, member of the jury, defense attorney, prosecuting attorney and judge.  Since graduating in 2010, Evan went to college and was just accepted into law school for the fall.  Evan is currently overseeing the implementation of three Teen Court programs in Philadelphia.

Conclusion

With cuts to school operating budgets and the push for restorative practices in the classroom, the need for programs like Teen Courts is greater than ever.  Teen Court is another intervention implemented prior to a student’s potential suspension from school.  By giving a student the opportunity for self reflection and following through with their sentence, students have a chance to turn their misguided behavior around in and out of the classroom.

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Janet Baldwin - Principal
Four years ago Gregg Voltz approached me to explore the idea of introducing Youth court to younger children.  I had heard about its success at Chester High School and was excited about the opportunity to offer this experience to our children.  We started with a fourth grade class and a teacher who was enthusiastic and understood the potential of putting power in the hands of her students.  Gregg was uncertain about the ability of our children to grasp the background information and the procedural knowledge needed to understand the intricacies of being able to conduct a hearing.  They quickly surpassed his expectations and began to own the process in ways that were exciting to witness.  This group of students went on to participate in Youth Court during their fifth and sixth grade years.  They were able to hold hearings, respond thoughtfully to their roles and responsibilities, and started to understand the power of restorative justice.  This group has moved on to middle school but we now have both our 4th and 5th grades involved in Youth Court moving toward becoming an important part of our school culture.

My purpose is to describe the impact and potential Youth Court has both in the present and for the future of our students.  Very few children clearly understand the function of our judicial system and how it is intended to work.  Many of our children have had negative experiences with the front lines of our criminal justice system as victims of torn relationships due to circumstances and decisions made by the adults in their lives.  Some have spent time in court as bystanders while a parent or close relative is being adjudicated – almost always with a negative outcome.  The message is clear – the system has left their families powerless and is not to be trusted.  Judges and lawyers who have the desire to teach, to prevent, to break the cycle, are bound by the tyranny of a system that is overburdened beyond comprehension.  Youth Court has opened the doors of understanding and the potential to develop relationships that may change their misconceptions about the power children can have over their destiny.

Restorative justice is a complicated concept but powerful in its potential to change how we view the world and our ability to learn to restore relationships.  We have a responsibility at our school to teach the social skills and the decision making processes that will lead to success.  Discipline means “to teach” and Youth Court mirrors the process we use but at a much more sophisticated level.  It gives our students the ability to direct the components of a restorative system which leads to a much higher level of understanding and greater likelihood for transfer into real-life situations.  We strive to have our children explain what they did, identify the choices that were not the best, determine how they will “fix” things, and focus on what they learned for the future.  Youth Court puts students as drivers of this process.  They are charged with the roles of describing an infraction with clarity, identifying the core issues, and developing a plan of action that will restore order and relationships for a positive outcome.

We believe at Stetser that putting power into the hands of our children will lead to positive outcomes.  It is important that we treat each other with kindness and respect.  Youth Court exemplifies putting these goals into action.  Once you work hard and experience success, no one can take that away.  Youth Court is an important tool for us to grow leaders who can be thoughtful and learn to make wise decisions for themselves and others.  We look forward to continuing to offer this invaluable learning experience for our students and we are thankful for the hard work and vision that has gone into creating Youth Court – a powerful vehicle for changing the future for our children.

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Claudia Averette - Chief of Staff, Chester Upland School District
Dear Senate Democratic Policy Committee Members:

The Chester-Upland School District is pleased to write in support of student-based youth courts.  Next fall will be the tenth year we have had youth courts in our district. Initially we had just one at Chester High School.  After a few years we expanded them into our middle school, and this school year we had students in 9 classes (from the fourth grade to the 12th grade) learning the skills needed to operate a youth court. The schools were: Stetser, Main Street and CUSA elementary schools, Toby Farms Middle School, Chester High School and our S.T.E.M. school. Well over 200 of our students received youth court training this school year.

We view youth courts as an alternative disciplinary method that in some cases were more affective than traditional school discipline. They take advantage of the power of positive peer pressure.  Just as negative peer pressure from others can lead to inappropriate behavior by many youth, so positive peer pressure can help steer youth on the right path. We have seen the effect of positive peer pressure in our youth courts. Youth court is a youth development tool providing students with socialization, academic, and civic engagement benefits.

In addition youth courts, as taught in our schools, promote restorative justice, not punishment.  This approach is more consistent with neuroscience findings that adolescent brains are still developing and lack the necessary self-regulation capacity found in adults. New scientific research confirms what society has always observed about adolescent behavior: that youth are immature and often lack the necessary self-discipline to resist impulsive and risky behavior, causing them to make bad decisions. Youth courts recognize this behavioral immaturity as a major cause of student rule violations, and seek not to punish the student offender but to identify and fix the harm caused, and help the student offender reflect on their bad behavior, so they can avoid it in the future.

Should you need further information, we would be happy to put you in touch with both our teachers and climate control staff who support and help implement our youth courts. We encourage all efforts to increase support for youth courts statewide and wish you success in this endeavor.

Atentamente,

Claudia Averette

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Sara A. Austin, Esquire - President, PA Bar Association
Dear Senator Boscola:

The Pennsylvania Bar Association has supported the work of Gregg Volz and others in promoting and establishing youth courts in our schools and communities since 2007 and formally endorsed these programs in 2011.   PBA lawyers across the Commonwealth have donated their time and resources to help establish youth court programs.  Earlier this month, the PBA’s Law-Related Education Committee and its chair, Philip Yoon, joined with the PBA’s Pro Bono Office to honor the youth court students of Manchester Academic Charter School and their partners at Schnader Harrison Segal & Lewis LLP in an inspiring program at the Supreme Court courtroom in Pittsburgh.  Pennsylvania Supreme Court Justice David Wecht and Duquesne Law Professor Tracey McCants Lewis observed a youth court demonstration and spoke passionately to the students and adults gathered in the Supreme Court court room about service and the pursuit of justice.

Lawyers in Franklin County have worked for years to bring the positive and meaningful impact that youth court programs have on student learning and success, as well as the improvement of the school environment, to schools in their county.  The Public Defender of Montgomery County is supporting a successful youth court at Norristown High School.  A survey of Pennsylvania youth courts recently updated by the PBA’s Pro Bono Office showed operating school and juvenile justice based courts from Erie to Philadelphia.  The PBA believes that youth courts should be in every school and community and encourages efforts that will broaden the distribution of these programs across the state.

Youth courts are an invaluable resource for schools and, more importantly, they make a real difference in re-directing in a positive way the life path of the students who are engaged in the process.

Sincerely yours,

Sara A. Austin, Esquire
President
Pennsylvania Bar Association

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Mary Pugh - Chair, PA Bar Association

PA BAR ASSOCIATION RESOLUTION ON YOUTH COURTS

Whereas the Pennsylvania Bar Association is committed to ensuring justice for all citizens;

Whereas the Pennsylvania Bar Association supports efforts to educate our youth about the legal system and citizen rights and responsibilities;

Whereas the Pennsylvania Bar Association is mindful of the changing needs of our society and its responsibility to craft legal reform responsive to said needs;

Whereas the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice Report called for better coordination of the education and juvenile justice systems;

Whereas hearings held by the Pennsylvania House and Pennsylvania Senate in 2010 provided testimony that school based youth courts develop a student culture utilizing  positive peer pressure to hold youth accountable, teach them that acts have consequences, and benefiting both the educational and justice systems;

Whereas youth courts have been in existence since the 1930’s around the country and for more than 30 years in Pennsylvania, becoming during the past decade the country’s most replicated alternative discipline and juvenile justice program through both school based and community/juvenile justice based youth courts because they are an early prevention and intervention program, offer opportunities for youth to connect positively with adults and youth in their community, and encourage youth contributions to community problem solving;

Whereas school based youth courts benefit the educational system by enhancing  citizenship, socialization and academic skills and providing youth with experiential learning to complement classroom government lessons;

Whereas school based youth courts benefit the education system by training students to  step into the roles of prosecutors, defenders, jurors and judges and experience first-hand how our legal system functions;

Whereas community/juvenile justice based youth courts are a preferred alternative to more punitive juvenile justice discipline by 1) requiring youth to accept responsibility and pay back the community; 2) employing restorative justice mandating that respondents make amends though writing letters of apology, performing community service, and mandatory jury duty on the youth court; 3) linking troubled teens to needed services including tutoring, mentoring, and anger-management classes; 4) utilizing students as the primary resource needed for operations thereby reducing personnel costs;

Whereas youth courts of all types benefit society by stemming the tide of students into the school to prison pipeline and improving school and community climate by keeping non-violent students in school rather than putting them on the streets with zero tolerance disciplinary policies;

Whereas youth courts of all types provide needed academic enhancement by providing a venue for youth to learn to think on their feet, ask probing questions, build self-confidence, increase public speaking and teamwork competencies, develop consensus building skills – all skills they will utilize the rest of their lives;

Whereas youth courts of all types benefit the entire community by reconnecting youth to the rule of law, law enforcement, and the justice system;

Whereas youth courts of all types provide a unique civic education platform for youth to engage in hands on application of democratic principles which evidence-based research has shown is the most effective tool to teach citizenship skills;

Whereas youth courts of all types train youth to employ restorative justice principles,   respect the rights of others, demonstrate that every youth can contribute and feel valued, and show that bad behavior creates risks and can destroy their future;

Whereas constructive dispositions are based on the restorative justice model and are designed to educate offenders, discourage future crime, and encourage pro-social behavior;

Whereas youth courts of all types facilitate youth development and leadership while rewarding students who help other students with recognition and incentives;

Whereas youth courts can be a cornerstone of a new partnership between the legal system and the community, including schools, reduce crime and violence, create safe homes, schools and neighborhoods, and restore faith in the justice system;

Whereas youth courts can utilize volunteer, law school and parental support to achieve positive outcomes in resource poor communities and school districts;

Whereas youth courts can be structured to ensure needed uniform standards while preserving the flexibility to satisfy the diverse needs of 500 school districts and 60 justice systems in Pennsylvania:

Whereas Pennsylvania Bar Association committees have analyzed best youth court practices and materials from Pennsylvania youth courts and other states;

NOW IT IS HEREBY RESOLVED that the Pennsylvania Bar Association shall endorse the ABA’s efforts to promote Youth Courts as demonstrated in the ABA’s FEBRUARY 14, 2011Resolution which was unanimously approved by the ABA House of Delegates. 

It is further resolved that the PBA recognize the unique aspects of youth courts in Pennsylvania as reflected in the recent Pennsylvania Lawyer Magazine article which shows that there are already existing, and in many cases long established, school and community/juvenile justice based youth courts in Pennsylvania that need support and that need to be consulted as youth court efforts in Pennsylvania move forward.  As a sign of that support, the PBA shall organize and convene before the end of the 2011 calendar year a statewide Youth Court Advisory Board made up of the various Youth Court stakeholders, including but not limited to judges, lawyers, elected representatives, police and probation officers, educators, students, faith based and philanthropic leaders and others from the law, justice and education communities, including parents. 

Recognizing that the Interbranch Commission on Juvenile Justice Report specifically called on the PBA to develop programs that bridged civic education and juvenile justice, it is further resolved that the PBA promote a system of both school based and community/juvenile justice based Youth Courts across the Commonwealth.  Building on the conflict resolution, anti-bullying and law-related education model of the PBA’s Project PEACE, Youth Courts shall be encouraged to be introduced as school based programs in the junior and senior high schools of the Commonwealth, as well as in various other settings for juvenile offenders for community/juvenile justice youth courts.  The PBA further resolves that where school based youth courts exist, community/juvenile justice youth courts need to be developed; where community/juvenile justice based youth courts exist, school based ones need encouragement.  Where none exist, either type should be started with the goal of adding the missing type as soon as possible.

Since legislation supporting Youth Courts is currently being discussed among members of the General Assembly and Youth Court supporters around the state, it is further resolved that the PBA encourage such efforts, as well as support the public/private partnership to expand and improve the sustainability of Youth Courts across Pennsylvania.

Respectfully submitted,

Mary Pugh, Chair
April 15, 2011

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John Papiano - Educator, A.M.Y. at James Martin
Youth court is an opportunity for students that make poor choices to improve their behavior without being suspended or punished in the traditional way. Youth court will find a way to help students become responsible for their behavior and make better choices in the future. As Zero Tolerance fades as a disciplinary policy, restorative justice programs such as youth court are filling a void that has not provided alternatives to suspension. Youth courts gives students a second chance while developing higher level thinking skills for the youth court members. Youth courts have proven to be a successful tool to implement restorative justice and should play a role in all schools in Pennsylvania.

The Youth Court at A.M.Y. at James Martin Middle School is an exemplary example of what a youth court can provide to a school. In its first year, the youth court has reduced suspensions by 46% and is responsible for handling over 100 referrals. The youth court has taken responsibility for nearly all disciplinary action in the school. The youth court cases at A.M.Y. include cases about horseplay, mutual fights, and plagiarism among other issues.

Youth courts can work at any school. There are youth courts in Philadelphia elementary, middle, and high schools including both public and charter schools. These schools represent a continuum of demographics and academic achievement. As youth courts expand throughout the district the transition of students with youth court experience moving from elementary to middle and middle to high school will only strengthen the youth court programs.

The low cost of youth courts makes them an attractive choice compared to other restorative justice options. Youth courts require one adult to be trained per school which gives that school ongoing access to youth courts year after year. As students with youth court experience move from elementary to middle school and from middle school to high school the training will be minimized. Other restorative practice option such as Positive Behavior Intervention System and Restorative Circles depend on all teachers being trained, which is a challenge based on the turnover rate of the school district and also implementing the program with fidelity.

Youth courts provide benefits to the members of the youth court in addition to the benefits to the respondents. Youth court members are required to engage in problem solving and higher level thinking skills. There are positions to develop leadership such as judge and bailiff. Students also develop public speaking skills in all positions, especially as youth advocate and jury foreperson. Youth courts are flexible and can be modified to meet the needs of each school. A.M.Y. at James Martin modified the basic youth court model by adjusting the number of students in the jury, developing a plea bargain system, and developing a restraining order. Schools can choose to run a youth court program as an elective, as part of a social studies class, or as an after school club. Each school has different needs and youth courts can accommodate the needs of any school.

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Grace Osa-Edoh - Volunteer, Youth Court Support Center
Dear Committee Members:

My name is Grace Osa-Edoh, and I am a recently graduated law student at Temple University Beasley School of Law.  I volunteer with the Youth Court Support Center, run by my attorney supervisor, Gregg Volz.  As a youth court coordinator I teach two classes with students aged twelve to fourteen – seventh and eighth graders.  They are each mixed gender classes with slightly more girls than boys.  The students are mostly Black, with one or two Latino children in each class as well.  The school they attend, Ethel Allen Middle School, is in one of the poorest neighborhoods in Philadelphia, and this is felt by both the students and myself as we try to create a system of self-regulation of behavioral issues through a completely student-run youth court, focusing in retributive rather than punitive justice.

Retributive justice scholars believe that punishment-focused systems exacerbate the problems that lead to crime by creating “us versus them” mentalities and perpetuating violence.[1]  There is also considerable evidence showing that punishment models do not act as deterrence, especially when wrongdoers’ actions are influenced by economic desperation, emotional damage, and mental illness rather than a cost-benefit analysis that incorporates the possibility of punishment.[2] This is especially true when evaluating the deterrent effect of punishment systems on children, who in some cases are incapable of cost-benefit analysis, and have been shown to have less impulse control than adults.[3]  Despite these findings, the dominant approach both in the larger criminal justice system and in juvenile justice is a punitive one.[4]  Students are accustomed to facing detention, suspensions, and expulsion for wrongdoing in school.[5]  Some say this model sends the message that the larger criminal justice system sends to adults: those who cannot function in civilized society will be removed from it.[6]  Many have declared this model as particularly damaging to children who are dealing with mental illness such as bipolar disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome, or oppositional defiant disorder in conjunction with the lower capacity for impulse control.[7]  This has led many education scholars to turn from traditional punishment-based models to more restorative models that focus both on the wrongdoer and the victim, with the goal of understanding why the wrongdoer acted and helping the wrongdoer to change his or her actions.[8]  Youth Court functions as one of these restorative justice centered programs, and in trying cases we seek not only to keep children in school and out of the streets, but also to explain why restorative justice is a more efficient model for reducing wrongdoing.

The youth court model takes a child that has been discovered breaking a rule of the school, and instead of punishing him or her through traditional means such as detention or suspension, sends the student to a peer-run youth court that adjudicates the issue and renders a disposition.  The student “perpetrator” must first admit the wrongdoing – youth court is not an instrument for assigning guilt – and once the perpetrator does, she becomes the “respondent”, in youth court for the purpose of explaining her motivations for acting to a jury of her peers and giving them enough information to render a disposition that ensures that the root of the problem is addressed, rather than punishing the effects of the underlying issue as the traditional system would do.  The powers of enforcement lie entirely with the students; a student plays bailiff, another plays judge. There is a youth advocate, the defense attorney for the respondent, as well as a jury foreperson, responsible for calling on jury members to ask questions of the respondent.  The students are trained to ask questions to determine the facts of the case, to help both the jury and the Respondent understand the harm caused by the action, and to find a way to “fix” the problem that led to the action.  Students render retributive justice dispositions such as an apology letter, a counseling session, or an afternoon of service to the school like cleaning up after lunch.

In my experience, youth court has been a crucial and effective way of reducing rule-breaking, violence, and conflict in schools while giving students a sense of efficacy in the punishment systems that affect them. Implementing a youth court program is relatively inexpensive, because schools can use students from local universities and law schools, like me, to teach the youth court members how to run a court without payment.  The benefits of youth court are immense, especially in relation to the cost.  I have witnessed students who disrupt class and create disturbances in other classrooms thrive as a judge or bailiff in a youth court setting.  These students are seeking a setting in which they have more control than they do in traditional classrooms, and youth court not only gives them that setting, but challenges them to effectively administer the rules that they may seek to break in other classes, teaching them the importance of structure, discipline, and adherence to classroom rules in a positive setting.

Youth court also helps curb the infamous school-to-prison pipeline; in the youth court I supervised, students who may have been asked to leave school for fighting one another were sent to youth court to tell their story to their peers instead.  This experience is invaluable, because not only does it give the respondent a sense of participation and fairness in the punishment model, as well as keep them in school and off the streets where they are more likely to be arrested or detained by law enforcement, but it also gives the youth court students the ability to examine a case from all sides, teaching them that even when a person does wrong, it is less useful to condemn them than it is to try and understand them. In youth court we also encourage the students to ask questions such as, “how do you think the teacher felt when you ignored her instructions?” therefore creating more empathy between the students and their authority figures.  This allows the students to see authority figures as more than a entity meant to punish them or curb their entertainment, and instead invites students to view those in authority as regular people, just like them, who should have respect and whose feelings are capable of being hurt.

After working with the Ethel Allen middle school students for a year, I believe that youth court should be implemented in every school facing significant behavioral problems, suspensions, expulsions, and high drop-out rates.  Youth court is useful for disruptive students, for shy students, for respondents, and for school administration.  And it has certainly been helpful for me as a law student interested in public interest law.  I believe youth court is one of the keys to reviving the Philadelphia School District, and I strongly advocate for its implementation.

Atentamente,

Grace Osa-Edoh

[1] Kate Cameron, Tyler G Okimoto and Michael Wenzel, Do Retributive and Restorative Justice Processes Address Different Symbolic Concerns?, 20 CRITICAL CRIMINOLOGY 25-40 (2012)

[2] Id.

[3] Craig E. Smith, Children’s Reasoning About Distributive and Retributive Justice Across Development 52 DEVELOPMENTAL PSYCH. 613 (2016)

[4] Christopher Slobogin and Mark Fondacaro, Juvenile Justice: the Fourth Option, 95 IOWA L. REV. 1 (2009)

[5] Id.

[6] Id.

[7] Id.

[8] Anna L. Benvenue, Turning Troubled Teens Into Career Criminals: Can California Reform the System to Rehabilitate its Youth Offenders?, 38 GOLDEN GATE U. L. REV. 33 (2007)

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Dean Beer, Esq. - Chief Public Defender, Montgomery County
I am writing on behalf of the Montgomery County Public Defender Office to share our absolute support for Youth Court Programs in our county and throughout Pennsylvania. We are fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with Gregg Volz in launching this critical program in our county.
As public defenders, we see far too many youth referred into the justice system for low level, school-related offenses. We estimate between 30-40 percent of our juvenile delinquency cases involve charges arising at school and we estimate that nearly half of those charges are by law discretionary, not mandatory, referrals to law enforcement. With those estimates in mind, we began to look for alternatives to correct negative behavior in school without unnecessarily enmeshing young people in the slippery slope of court involvement, criminal records, and further academic deficits.
When we learned about Youth Courts as a restorative alternative to traditional school discipline, we were hooked. Approximately 1,150 Youth Courts exist nationwide and we are dedicated to implementing them in Montgomery County. Empowering student peers to explore harm and accountability with each other in their own schools offers transformative opportunities that traditional discipline models like detention and suspension do not. Peer reflection resonates with teens when adult lectures and discipline falls short. If we can begin to change individual behavior and school culture at the source, we may see significant reduction of youth entering the justice system. Youth Courts represent an incredible diversionary program and effective tool in dealing with the school-to-prison pipeline by using positive peer pressure to shape respondent behavior while also teaching student volunteers how to reach consensus and a fair decision.
In 2012, we partnered with Gregg Volz, Esq. to explore the youth courts in Montgomery County. In 2014, after many conversations and extensive planning, with the support of Dr. Janet Samuels of the Norristown Area School District (NASD), we launched the very first youth court in Montgomery County at the Norristown High School. Together we trained Villanova Law students to train 1oth grade students to run their own restorative justice court system dealing with disciplinary infractions within their school. The program was very well-received. At the end of the school year, the Public Defender, lead discipline teacher and the youth court teacher presented a summary ofthe program and results to the Norristown School Board.
In 2015, the high school continued the youth court program. We expanded the program to include presentations by the Juvenile Court Judge, District Attorney, Public Defender, and the NASD Superintendent, underscoring the important role this court serves in the school and community as a tool in ending the school to prison pipeline. Additionally, the youth court members received an intensive trial skills session with four experienced trial attorneys from the Montgomery County Public Defender Office. We are currently working with Eisenhower Middle School to begin training seventh and eighth grade students beginning in 2016, so that they may continue to serve as youth court members in the high school.
We continue to seek other school districts interested in implementing restorative justice through youth courts. We recently recent presented our program to the Montgomery County Children’s Roundtable. We have identified local university students and continue to receive interest from law students eager to volunteer and train students how to run their own youth courts.
We are fully committed to supporting and expanding youth courts in Montgomery County as a means of providing thoughtful and productive methods to change behavior that, if not addressed in a restorative fashion, all too often escalates into suspensions, expulsions and
entry into the justice system.
SincerelyDean M. Beer, Esq.
Chief Public Defender

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Otis Hackney - Chief Education Officer, City of Philadelphia
Thank you, Senator Farnese and members of the Senate Democratic Policy Committee for allowing me to submit testimony to you about Youth Courts in Philadelphia schools. I would like to take this opportunity to emphasize the importance of Youth Courts as a key part of juvenile discipline in neighborhood schools and how they helped to create a climate of respect and support during my tenure as Principal at South Philadelphia High School (Southern).

The Youth Court system at Southern was developed to allow students to examine and adjudicate discipline of their classmates who committed “non-violent, Level 1 offenses” according to the School District’s Student Code of Conduct. These disruptive behaviors were limited in scope to minor infractions, such as excessive tardiness, inappropriate use of technology during class time, and failing to carry a hall pass. Under normal circumstances, students who violated these Level 1 offenses would be subject to correctional actions as determined by the Dean of Students and teachers, without giving students a voice in the discipline process; however, Youth Courts give the young men and women of Southern the opportunity to appeal their case before a cohort of their peers who serve as judge, jury, and attorneys.

Seniors at Southern are able to participate in Youth Court by signing up for this class as an elective credit. In class, seniors partner with Law Students from Villanova and a dedicated teacher to learn the ins-and-outs of basic legal proceedings. This class takes a unique approach to education. Outside of traditional instruction, students are able to practice serving as judges, members of a jury, or an attorney and given the opportunity to hear from a variety of guest speakers who work in law. Students use this knowledge to defend, prosecute, and determine correctional action for students who were referred to the Youth Court by the Dean of Students.

The educational environment created in this course allows students to explore elements of law beyond basic knowledge of trials, court proceedings and the roles of various personnel in a courtroom. Through the guidance of their law mentors, students are able to hone new skills and discover talents in areas of law that they may have not realized without the opportunity to serve on the Youth Court. I have long believed that students are most likely to succeed when they are afforded varied academic and extracurricular opportunities to develop into well-rounded adults. Watching students in the Youth Court program at Southern grow as they were given numerous opportunities to explore their potential strengths only reinforced that belief.

The Youth Court at Southern not only benefits the students enrolled in the class but also benefits the overall student community. There was a clear and noticeable improvement in the way low-level discipline was handled among students that had to appear before the Court. It created a heightened sense of respect among the class because students were held accountable to one another for their behavior.

By creating a process for students to defend and explain their actions, school administrators and staff were able to create an atmosphere of respect, fairness, and equity at Southern. Students who are referred to the Youth Court are able to plead their cases and have their voices heard. The Court also allows these students to work with their peers who serve as Defense Attorneys to help structure their defense and work to ensure that the disciplinary action was proportional to the misconduct. This inclusive disciplinary model creates more respect for the correctional actions and rulings that are decided in the Youth Court. Further, this process increases support for the Dean of Students. Rather than pursuing unilateral punishment, referring students to the Youth Court system demonstrates that Southern’s school community values the voice of each individual student. The simple act of giving young adults an avenue to share their side of a case contributes to a major shift in culture within a school building.

The success of the Youth Court program at South Philadelphia High School is due to a cooperative effort from staff, teachers, and students. The school community pulled together to adopt an innovative model for addressing issues with student behavior, and did so in a manner that was respectful to students while adhering to the School District’s Code of Conduct. Youth Courts, when implemented with care, offer a collaborative approach to addressing misconduct.

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Jack Levine - Program Director, National Association of Youth Courts
On behalf of our Board of Trustees and network of youth courts nationwide, it is my pleasure to share this message of enthusiastic endorsement for the good works of Gregg Volz and his network of colleagues who seek to expand the reach of youth courts, a successful positive justice and civic engagement program in schools and communities.

Youth Courts give communities an opportunity to provide immediate response to young people who are experiencing school and community-based behavioral challenges. Youth courts provide a peer-oriented sanctions mechanism that allows young people to take responsibility, be held accountable and, when appropriate, make restitution for their actions.  Peer pressure is used in youth courts to exert positive peer influence over adolescent behavior.  In addition to imposing constructive sanctions, youth courts also offer a great civic opportunity for youth.  Youth volunteers actively assume the roles of teen attorneys, clerks, bailiffs, jurors and even judges while gaining hands-on knowledge of the juvenile and criminal justice systems. They acquire career learning about police and probation officers, judges, social workers, court management and administration.

Youth courts promote alternative sanctions resulting in reduced costs per case as compared to the traditional justice system, reduced recidivism rates, and provide valuable civic engagement experiences.  Expanding youth courts is an effective strategy for reducing juvenile delinquency and allowing young people to take responsibility for their actions in benefit to their communities.

We at the National Association of Youth Courts (NAYC) work to support and expand existing youth courts and improve their sustainability by bolstering the activities of the community service agencies dedicated to their vital youth development mission. We are pleased to have the opportunity to share our enthusiasm and welcome every opportunity to promote these excellent services for the benefit of the youth.

Please let me know if you would like to discuss further as we make progress together.

Atentamente,

Jack Levine, Program Director

jack@4gen.org

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Gregg Volz - Director, Youth Court Support Center at EducationWorks
Youth courts are student run alternatives to juvenile justice and school disciplinary systems.

Students are trained by lawyers, law students, college students, teachers and others to perform all court functions (judge, bailiff, jurors, etc.).  Jurors ask probing questions to find the facts, determine the harm, and impose a restorative disposition to fix the problem. Positive peer pressure helps offenders reflect on their behavior, and accept responsibility for their actions.

Youth courts can operate after-school or be integrated within Social Studies and Language Arts classes. In most states the majority of youth courts operate as a juvenile justice diversion.

Neuroscience informs us that the stress and trauma disadvantaged youth experience impairs their decision making and impulse control. Absent nurturing relationships with stable adults, these youth fail to acquire the executive function skills needed to cope with their environment.  Teachers confirm such youth have problems following instructions and socializing.  Without effective intervention they fall behind becoming a danger to themselves and the community.

Youth court participation in under-resourced schools improves life outcomes for these youth.

Youth court participants report its transformative impact as they learn coping skills they otherwise fail to acquire, and will use the rest of their lives.  Using restorative justice as a participatory tool, youth court students contribute to the well-being of their school and community. The most empowering courts limit the role of adults to trainer and mentor, trusting youth to control the entire process.  Youth court participants practice real civic engagement.

Youth Court benefits for respondents (student offenders)

  • Offenders describe the facts of the offense to a jury of trained peers.
  • Offenders receive restorative justice, instead of being suspended they stay in school.
  • Offenders value peer justice more than adult discipline.
  • Offenders have lower recidivism rates, and the school-to-prison pipeline is blocked.

Youth Court benefits for student participants (some are former offenders)

  • Participants acquire legal knowledge and a positive attitude towards the legal system.
  • Participants contribute to their community through experiential and service learning.
  • Participants acquire academic skills: concentration, public speaking, communication.
  • Students work together and collaborate to form a restorative
  • Students are engaged/empowered to be good citizens.
  • Youth court is a drop-out prevention program; most members graduate.

Youth Court benefits for schools and neighborhoods

  • Communication between juvenile and educational systems is improved.
  • School safety/climate improves, especially when used with other restorative practices.
  • Costs of school discipline are dramatically reduced.
  • Disciplinary systems gain “youth as resources” and adult volunteers as mentors.
  • A culture of youth justice is created and negative peer pressure is combatted.
  • Curriculum is enhanced by hands-on application of civic education.

Youth courts, when properly designed and implemented, are sustainable

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Francis J. Catania, Jr. - Director of Experiential Education, Widener University Delaware Law School

This letter supports the development of high quality and sustainable student-based youth courts in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  Widener University and its Delaware Law School have been analyzing youth courts and how they fit within our mission for over five years.   Our law school has taken the lead regionally in encouraging students to volunteer in youth courts and we believe youth court service provides our students with an opportunity to acquire skills and develop values that go beyond those normally learned in more traditional doctrinal curricula.

Widener is a national leader among institutions of higher education making a difference in the communities in which we live, learn, and work.  Widener stresses experiential learning and civic engagement by its students and is a case study on the positive impact colleges and universities can have in improving the nation’s struggling communities. Widener was selected as a Presidential Award finalist for the 2013 President’s Higher Education Community Service Honor Roll.  It was one of the first universities to be classified as a “community engagement institution” by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  Author Terrence MacTaggart has observed: “Today, Widener is prospering. Rather than ignoring the problems of its hometown, [Widener] has found a way to become a positive part of its community….”

In 2012 three law students and a law professor observed a high school youth court in Widener’s home town of Chester, Pennsylvania, and decided to volunteer to support its further development. The following year a consortium of organizations under the leadership of the law school met to develop a plan to create youth courts in Wilmington, Delaware and continue to support and develop them in Chester.  Over the past four academic years more than 40 Delaware Law School students have volunteered to support youth courts in Chester and Wilmington.  Several faculty members in the law school have also participated in training law students to administer youth courts.

Two years ago Gregg Volz, Youth Court Support Center Director, and I addressed a meeting of the Senior Leadership Team (members of the executive team as well as the deans of each school and college and all the administrators across the university) describing the Chester and Wilmington Youth Court programs and the law school’s role in those programs.  In response to that presentation a University Youth Courts Committee was formed.  In the past year, that committee has worked to develop a multi-disciplinary approach, with participation by faculty and students in Social Work, Criminal Justice, Psychology, and Education.  Efforts in Chester were focused on the Widener Partnership Charter School, a school founded in 2006 as a partnership between community leaders and residents of the City of Chester and Widener University.  Located adjacent to the Widener University campus, the school is a K-8 elementary school serving the families of the Chester-Upland School District.

A key to the sustainability of the Delaware Law School Youth Courts program is its concept of cascading mentoring.  Law School faculty oversee the training of law student volunteers to be mentors to middle school students.  The law students then meet regularly with the middle school students to guide them through a course adapted from a manual that Gregg Volz developed.  Faculty from the law school and from the education, social work, psychology and criminal justice departments worked to adapt the original manual to make it more appropriate for middle schoolers.  The program starts with 6th grade students.  The next year, when those students are in 7th grade, they mentor a new class of 6th graders, under the guidance of the law students.  As things progress, the law students will also work with graduate students from other disciplines, who will mentor undergraduate students across the disciplines, and all will work in various capacities with the middle schoolers.  Eventually, the expectation is that a culture of Youth Court participation will take root in the school.

Youth court is an innovative program which simultaneously helps resource-poor schools and provides a unique opportunity for students in law schools and universities to engage in service learning. Youth Courts interrupt the school-to-prison pipeline and reduce suspensions for students who break school rules. They also allow Widener graduate and undergraduate students who participate in the cascading mentoring to acquire skills that broaden their own learning. Properly designed and implemented youth courts are a cost-effective program providing multiple benefits to disadvantaged communities.

We believe that higher education institutions have the potential to provide a significant percentage of the human resources needed to train adolescents to run youth courts. At Widener we continue to pilot new efforts to engage both students and faculty in youth court development. We would be pleased to provide further information about our Youth Court support if the Senate Policy Committee has further questions.

Atentamente,

Francis J. Catania, Jr.
Associate Professor of Law
Director of Experiential Education
Widener University Delaware Law School

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Jason W. Poore - Defense Attorney, White and Williams LLP

Dear Committee Members:

I am a young civil defense attorney at the law firm of White and Williams LLP.  I have been practicing for over eight years and am a lifelong resident of Philadelphia.  This year, I started an ad hoc committee for Youth Courts through my position on the Executive Committee of the Young Lawyers Division of the Philadelphia Bar Association.  My goal for the committee is to raise awareness regarding Youth Courts and to assist in the implementation of more Youth Courts in Philadelphia.

As a young adult, I became aware of the many problems facing Philadelphia and learned firsthand about several programs established to address those problems.  Many of these programs were created to address economic disparity and a lack of full time employment, especially among the impoverished community.  I worked two summers at one of these programs, a Pennsylvania CareerLink location in South Philadelphia.  During my time there, I worked with many people, young and old, looking for work.  Many of their stories were similar.  They got into trouble in school, dropped out, became involved with the criminal justice system at an early age, and have since been trying to get back on their feet.  After meeting Gregg Volz for the first time to discuss Youth Courts, I immediately thought back to my time at the CareerLink.  I wondered if just one of the jobseekers I worked with would have had a different life if his or her school had a Youth Court in place.  After learning more about the program, I realize there is a very good chance the answer to that question is yes.

Myself and a few members of my Youth Courts committee recently visited Strawberry Mansion High School to watch its Youth Court in action.  My experience there confirmed my belief in Youth Courts.  I witnessed a hearing for a student who was charged with cursing loudly and disrupting the classroom.  Normally, without a Youth Court, the student would have been suspended for about a week.  The student would thus be home for one week, likely without supervision.  The student also would not be permitted to make-up any of the work he missed and would be given a grade of zero for any tests or quizzes administered during that time.  The student thus returns to class well behind in the curriculum and with a reputation as a bad actor.  This situation is a catalyst for further bad behavior and involvement with the juvenile justice system.

With a Youth Court, both the process and outcome differ greatly compared to suspension.  The student was able to explain his side of the story and why he became aggravated.  He was forced to answer questions regarding how he thinks his actions affected his teachers and his peers.  While the student was initially guarded, he opened up and explained what happened after the jury panel asked many direct and empathetic questions.  This was able to occur because the student jury panel could relate to the student, and vice versa.  The jury panel deliberated for some time and discussed not only what the student did, but also why and how it affected those around him.  They discussed, with differing views among the jurors, a restorative punishment that would not only get the student’s attention and prevent further bad behavior, but would also provide the teachers and students affected during the incident with closure.  It was amazing to watch the student jurors argue about proposed punishments in a civil manner as opposed to simply yelling at each.  They listened to each other and ordered a restorative, and in my view, fitting and productive punishment.

The benefits of Youth Courts are evident.  The student was not summarily suspended, and thus would continue with his class work.  The student also was able to voice his side of the story and ultimately accepted his restorative punishment.  The members of the court, from the judge, to the youth advocates (attorneys), to the jury panel, displayed an understanding of basic legal principles, general restorative justice, and the responsibility they held in deciding the fate of a fellow student.  Youth Courts allow students to learn about the judicial system in a non-threatening and empowering environment, while at the same time providing students with restorative justice from their peers as opposed to punishment from the juvenile justice system.  The students take it very seriously, as should we.

The law is meant to find truth and deliver justice.  That is exactly what the students in Youth Courts are doing on a daily basis.  There are little to no additional costs to the schools, as the key resource is the students themselves.  There are young attorneys such as myself ready to get involved and assist in the development of this wonderful program throughout Philadelphia and Pennsylvania.  I therefore respectfully request that your Policy Committee support the Youth Courts program in Pennsylvania.

Atentamente,

Jason W. Poore

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Rachael Eisenberg - Project Manager, City of Philadelphia Managing Director’s Office

My name is Rachael Eisenberg and I currently serve as a Project Manager with the City of Philadelphia, Managing Director’s Office of Criminal Justice. I recently graduated from Temple University Beasley School of Law, Class of 2014. During my time at Temple, I was involved in a number of extracurricular activities, internships, and clinical programs, in addition to my regular coursework. By far, one of the most valuable experiences that I had during that time was as a law student instructor in the Youth Court program at Strawberry Mansion High School.

My involvement with Youth Courts began in the summer of 2012. I joined a group of civically-engaged law student from across the city to learn about the program and develop a strategy to expand the number of youth courts operating in Philadelphia public schools. A group of several Temple students committed to launching a youth court at Strawberry Mansion High School. Although I was unable to begin as an instructor during that first year, I remained engaged with the program and arranged my schedule the following year with youth courts in mind.  During the second year of the court’s operation at Strawberry Mansion, I began instructing a class twice a week, and I am so grateful for that experience.

As a law student, you spend countless hours in the classroom and library writing papers and analyzing case law. There are also internships and clinical that allow you to work with judges or at non-profits assisting with individual cases. However, Youth Courts was one of the few opportunities available that challenges law students to rethink the status quo and be creative about finding solutions to one of our community’s biggest social problems, the school-to-prison pipeline.

I cherished the opportunity afforded to me through youth courts. I was able to connect with students in my class that came from very challenging and often traumatic home environments. They taught me how to adapt and be responsive to their needs, which were often unpredictable. In motivating the students to engage with the material and appreciate the work of the court, they inspired me to fight harder and to use my education to impact change. I learned to translate my experiences in the classroom into larger policy and programming discussions about youth courts, juvenile justice, and the school-to-prison pipeline.

In my current profession, I regularly draw on the lessons I learned through youth courts. I am committed to finding creative ways to impact change in this city’s criminal justice system, and am constantly reminded that the work must be grounded in individual’s lived experiences. I am grateful to have been part of the Youth Courts and to have met the extraordinary young people at Strawberry Mansion. I hope that this project expands into every school in Philadelphia and that more law students carry the torch forward.

Thank you for your consideration.

Rachael Eisenberg

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Carole Haas Gravagno - Chair, Stoneleigh Foundation

I appreciate the opportunity to submit written testimony to the PA Senate Democratic Policy Committee.  I first witnessed a youth court hearing at a Chester High School in 2012 and was pleased at the seriousness and mutual respect that was evident between the student offender and the students operating the court.  I have seen other youth court hearings since then and am always impressed with the professionalism demonstrated by the students.  Youth courts use positive peer pressure to conform errant behavior. They also are a platform for youth development.

As the Chair of the Stoneleigh Foundation, which awards Fellowships to  individuals performing innovative work helping youth achieve better outcomes in the delinquency and dependency systems,   I applaud the work of all of our Fellows.  For the past decade we have supported new practices, policies and research in these fields.   As a former classroom teacher of elementary, middle, and high school students I took particular notice of Gregg Volz’s  Fellowship which from 2009-2012 developed a best practices model of student driven youth courts in Chester..  Youth courts are possibly the most promising strategy to block the school-to-prison pipeline in resource-poor school districts.

Over the past 4 years EducationWorks took up this work and has expanded youth courts into Philadelphia, Norristown, Camden, and Wilmington Delaware.  Research suggests that youth courts are both a better disciplinary system and empower youth to practice the democratic values that we cherish-respect for each other and the rule of law, responsible conduct, and justice.  The students who operate the court learn academic, socialization and civic engagement skills they will use the rest of their lives.

The Chester-Upland School District has been the most challenged school district in Pennsylvania for a quarter of a century.  Yet in the past school year youth courts were developed in all 6 of its schools,  at the specific request of School District Superintendent, Greg Shannon.  If youth courts are valued by the most challenged school district in Pennsylvania, it behooves us to explore their value to other school districts in our state.  The school-to-prison pipeline can best be blocked when we give teachers, students, and administrators a means to deal with inadequate financial support, overflowing classrooms, and frustrated students lacking conflict resolution skills. Youth courts do that.

Four years ago the Philadelphia City Council held a public hearing on youth courts. I testified at that time that I would ensure that philanthropy would do its part to support youth courts.  Over the past four years I have both supported youth courts myself, and successfully encouraged other private funders to support youth courts.  The impressive performance of the EducationWorks Youth Court Support Center –  training over 500 students who have conducted more than 200 disciplinary hearings, and reducing the suspension rate by almost 50% in one school- has been almost totally funded by private sources.  The private sector has made good on our commitment.  To further expand youth courts we need public sector help, as well as strong support from the judicial and legal community.   I intend to continue to support youth courts.  I hope others will also support them, so that together we can promote positive peer pressure, improve school climate, and transform at-risk youth into “youth as resources”.

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Keir Bradford-Grey - Chief Defender, Defender Association of Philadelphia
My Name is Keir Bradford-Grey and I am here today to share testimony in support of youth courts.
Working as a lawyer over the years I have seen the dramatic shift in the mindset of the juvenile justice system from one of pure rehabilitation, where the thought was that youth were less mature and less culpable than adults, to a system with a more punitive response to youth behavior with severe collateral consequences that can stay on a youth’s record the rest of their lives.
This shift did not happen overnight.
In the 1990s, policy makers began trying to crack down on behavior in schools. What started as an attempt to prevent violence soon ballooned into an atmosphere of fear and punishment. Children were being expelled from school for minor incidents, which would leave children with fewer options and increase the likelihood of making matters worse.
We all know that children make mistakes. We also know that children can learn from those mistakes, when we have developmentally appropriate responses to youth behavior that aim to keep kids in school.
Youth Courts offer the school and the students alternatives to address behavior in a prosocial and proactive way. They not only address the student’s behavior, but allow other youth to participate in the solution. As a result, everyone involved has agency and ownership of the outcome, and the youth involved feel fairly treated.
Youth court resolutions are more rooted in common sense and practical understanding than the one-size fits all approaches of the past. When one student explores his or her behavior in a youth court setting, other students share an understanding of what triggered those actions as they too have shared similar emotions and demonstrated similar responses. With such an understanding, youth are able to craft solutions that help address the underlying issues that caused the behavior. Most children who come before the youth court are willing to follow through with the disposition because they felt like they had an opportunity to be heard, they were treated fairly, and felt that the disposition was proportionate to the action. In other words, process and fairness matter. Zero tolerance not only prescribed an outcome, but did away with any chance to explain or be heard.
Addressing behavior in a setting that is less formal brings about better results. Students are more open to exploring their behavior with their peers as opposed to a judge. Students give more explanations and are more thoughtful in explaining and exploring why they engaged in certain behavior when speaking to their peers. This can teach the valuable skills of reflection and self-awareness that are vital to the ability of young adults to control their behavior.
After a youth court explores the actions, they then explore who was harmed by the student’s actions (many times this line of questioning led to children understanding how many others outside of the intended person were affected by the act). The youth court then determines an appropriate resolution so that all parties are made whole. I have witnessed youth who come before the youth court become more accountable for their actions through this process than I ever did practicing in juvenile court. Youth in the justice system rarely give explanation to the court that will be helpful in understanding who the youth is and why they engaged in the behavior. The environment is not conducive to exploring and admitting how their actions harmed others.
In fact, many of the youth who come into court for low level minor offense feel like they were treated unfairly by the very fact that they wound up in Court in the first place. They never saw their actions rising to the level of criminal sanctions and as a result they are left feeling more like the victim.
Not only do youth courts help to provide students with more meaningful resolutions to behavior, it also enhances participants’ understandings of justice. When we began teaching this class to students in Norristown High, we would give scenarios of general criminal behavior and asked them what the appropriate resolution would be. The youth immediately gravitated to the most punitive response. They were OK with saying someone should go to jail for minor offenses, they were very unforgiving and intolerant of the behavior of others. It was clear that it became their norm to use jail to address behavior. However, as the class went on and we explored youth behavior that was similar to the actions of their classmates, students became much more empathetic and actively sought more restorative and balanced responses. The best part was the transformation in their thoughts about crime and punishment. Through this exercise they learned that there were more creative options than reacting out of anger to negative behavior, and that these alternatives had better outcomes for all involved.
Students also learned a great deal about responsibility. Serving on the youth court allowed them to participate in an exercise that taught them about law. They didn’t just learn the rule of law, but they explored practical dilemmas and learned more about citizenship. They improved their public speaking skills and methods for mediation. Most of all they were able to find mentors through our work with them and Villanova law students.
The teachers appreciated youth court as it gave them options to address behavior. Many felt that the youth court helped the youth understand the teacher’s point of view far better than a suspension would. One teacher wrote a letter about the amazing results that youth court had and how the student’s apology and public acknowledgement of his behavior allowed his class to have a dialogue that they had never had before. This not only improved the relationship between members of the class, but helped the teacher better understand his students.
Youth courts provide enormous benefits to all involved, and have a ripple effect to positively impact the school, families, and the community. As we work to build a more just and sustainable city, I expect youth courts will remain as an important part of our future.
Sincerely,
Keir Bradford-Grey
Chief Defender

 

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Micah Winterstein - Teacher, Youth Court at Strawberry Mansion
Hi, My name is Micah Winterstein.

This is my first year teaching Youth Court at Strawberry Mansion. This has been one of the best experiences of my young teaching career. In Youth Court I teach kids not only the Youth Court process and how to hold hearings but I teacher them life lessons. Our kids are faced every day with decisions that they are not prepared to handle. Growing up in North Philly our students face circumstances that are not normal for teenagers but they know nothing else. The skills needed to survive their neighborhood are completely different than those needed to be successful in school. Most of our kids do not have someone to show them both.

In youth court we try and tackle those issues. Issues of snitching, peer pressure, what we define as success and abuse of all kinds. The one thing I was lucky enough not to have to teach my kids was empathy. My students are passionate and understanding. The most difficult part of youth court is coming up with the alternative. How can we untrain our brains from what we have been taught our whole lives.  I get to see my kids push themselves and discover new ways of handling problems. These are solutions that could one say save their life.

I once told my kids “to get out of the hood, you have to think differently than the hood”. It wasn’t as black and white as I once thought. Teaching Youth Court I learned that I can’t deny the hood has taught my kids to understand someone else’s’ struggle. It has taught them to be tough and never give up. But to obtain a better life our kids still need more. Youth Court provides a space for kids to think differently. We all need to think differently sometimes. Life isn’t black and white, suspension or detention; there are layers we must uncover to move kids forward.

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Anrico Stevenson - Student, Strawberry Mansion
Hi my name is Anrico Stevenson.

I currently a Jr. at Strawberry Mansion High School. Teen Court has done a lot for me. It has mad me more cautious in what I do. I can say it has also helped me mature. I catch myself not doing as much foolish things in school as I used to. I see myself more focused on work and spending less time on the negative things I used to do in school.

One day we were in class and we had a substitute. All of the kids were running around the room and they started to throw the books out of the window. I made the decision to ask for a pass to another room. I wanted to remove myself from the situation. I am thankful that I learned, to not only be cautious of my actions, but be cautious of the actions of the people around me. Everyone in the room was later suspended for what they did. These are decisions kids have to make everyday. Do I walk down that street? Do I hang with this group of kids? Do I cut school? Teen Court has taught me to put myself in positive situations and not wait for something bad to happen before I act and do the right thing.

I have become more mature through the questioning that goes on in Teen Court. I get a chance to listen to problems that students face and put myself in their shoes. I get to think about what I would have done if I were them. I find myself faced with these same issues in the future but I am prepared to handle them because I have already thought out alternatives. Not only do I get to use questioning for myself but I get to help others see how they could have handled situations better. So many students are used to receiving punishments for every poor action they have, that they don’t get a chance to reflect and think about it. Teen Court provides them with a space to be heard and to think. That is something we all need.

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Chanell Green - Student, Strawberry Mansion
Hi, My name is Chanell Green.

I am a senior at Strawberry Mansion High School. I’ve been in Teen Court for 4 years. Teen Court has taught me that there is a lot of different ways besides punishment to resolve problems. I’ve have been fortunate enough to have a lot of amazing experiences because of teen court. It is not everyday a young African American female can shadow lawyers, perform mock hearing in front of professors, Federal Judges, District Attorneys, and most importantly find their passion for law.

Before teen court I didn’t know what career path I wanted to go down but being here helped me. Teen court has been a tool for me that I can take into the real world.  One day when I practice law myself, I want to give people the chance to change their behavior.

It is easy to look at the things from just one point of view. We have been taught punishment all our lives. There is another way and it is not easy, but teen court has helped me see that it is possible.

Thank you.

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