At the Sixth Annual Youth Court Summit, a number of youth are involved in a mock trial that reenacts an actual case previously heard by a youth court (also called a peer court or teen court). The reenactment demonstrates to the audience how peer courts determine the consequences imposed on youth defendants for low-level criminal conduct. In many instances, an adult serves as a judge, but the teenage jury members have the final say in sentencing.
Youth courts provide an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system for first-time, nonviolent offenders. A youth charged with an offense can choose to forego the hearing and sentencing procedures of the juvenile courts; instead, he or she agrees to plead guilty and appear before a jury of youthful peers. The peer court staff is made up of youth who have been trained to assume various roles, including those of attorneys, judges, court staff, and, most important, jurors who determine what should happen to a youth who violated the law. Juvenile offenders who participate in the youth court program avoid a criminal record while still being held accountable for their actions.
The Youth Court Summit is California’s leading training and educational conference for youth and teen court staff. At the 2011 summit, held from June 24 to 26, 100 youth involved in peer courts throughout California met with judges, community service leaders, education experts, and law enforcement personnel at Chapman University School of Law in Orange, California. The summit is a project of the Administrative Office of the Courts’ Center for Families, Children & the Courts, and is cosponsored by the California Association of Youth Courts (CAYC).
The talks and workshops at the summit are designed to assist both current and prospective youth court staff on various issues. At the 2011 summit, workshops addressed such subjects as bullying, substance abuse, discrimination, and developing youth courts. Students also took part in moot courts, where they learned about famous Supreme Court cases like Dred Scott and Brown vs. the Board of Education.
According to Assistant Presiding Judge David S. Wesley of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, who is president of the CAYC,
In 1992 there were 3 youth courts in California and 78 in the nation. In 2011, California has youth courts throughout the entire state, from Lassen to Los Angeles, and there are over 1,100 nationwide. In all of these courts, students are committed to the concept of preventing delinquency by empowering young people. What better way to empower our youth than to bring them together to learn new approaches from each other and experts, and to share best practices in reducing delinquent behavior? The result is that the CAYC Conference provides this unique forum to inspire students to form a statewide network of youth dedicated to expanding early intervention programs. Every new youth court, no matter the model, adds energy and fresh ideas, and advances the goal of keeping young people involved in solving problems in their communities.
Based on national growth rates, it is estimated that youth courts might handle 25 percent of all juvenile arrests by 2015.
With this kind of growth, leadership of the type encouraged by the yearly Youth Court Summit is critical. The summit provides a unique opportunity for youth, juvenile court bench officers, and education experts to share best practices and to provide assistance to those who want to start a youth court.