Clifton Park Youth Court offers ‘rigorous’ justice

PETER R. BARBER/DAILY GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Prosecutor Dylan Nezaj makes a statement with clerk Josh Garber behind him at Youth Court at Clifton Park Town Hall Wednesday, December 2, 2015.PETER R. BARBER/DAILY GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER Prosecutor Dylan Nezaj makes a statement with clerk Josh Garber behind him at Youth Court at Clifton Park Town Hall Wednesday, December 2, 2015.

Cady Kuzmich
Gazette Reporter

Clifton Park’s Youth Court opened its doors to The Daily Gazette Dec. 2, as court proceedings began in Town Hall at 7 p.m.

Town Councilwoman Amy Standaert explains that by opting to take part in Youth Court, offenders’ records are expunged and their confidentiality is protected. “They are embarrassed by what they did and they don’t want people to find out,” she said.

Standaert emphasizes the program’s dedication to respecting student confidentiality and says this program “will not haunt them,” unlike more traditional routes that would stain their records, potentially preventing them from pursuing military service, college, certain jobs or even public office.

“It’s a rigorous program,” she says. The Youth Court program is based on restored justice, peer mediation and community service. “In a traditional court system, the kids might have to write an apology letter or pay a fine. It’s effectively a slap on the wrist, but it is added to their public record.”

Youth Court demands that students take more responsibility for their actions. No matter the crime, offenders must complete the minimum: 10 hours of community service and serve on at least one jury for a future Youth Court hearing.

Depending on the offense, students can be assigned as much as 60 hours of community service, counseling and be asked to sit on three separate Youth Court juries. In cases in which property is damaged, the offender may have to pay a fine as well.

Students are redirected toward this alternate court model by referral. Offenders have been referred to Youth Court by the district attorney’s office, Clifton Park town security, the probation department, the Shenendehowa Central School District ir directly from town justices.

First Case

The first hearing on Wednesday began at 7 o’clock sharp as the first offender, 17, took the stand. The court team included Dylan Nezaj as prosecutor, Ryan Plumadore as defender, Nate Lazurus as judge, Josh Garber as clerk, Adam Barcori as foreman and Kaylyn Newell as victim advocate.

The offense: a second degree criminal offense of trespassing. The offender allegedly broke into a duplex and “passed time” with friends watching movies in the apartment for five hours. Sheetrock and lights in the building were damaged that evening but the accused claims that they were not present at the time the damage occurred.

Newell, the victim advocate, spoke on behalf of the homeowner. Newell addressed the court saying the homeowners “felt violated,” adding “the homeowner’s daughter was looking forward to moving in but is now scared.”

Prosecutor Nezaj stressed the impact of the offender’s decision to trespass on the homeowner’s sense of security and privacy. Nezaj added, “This is it. If you commit another offense, there’s no Youth Court option.”

The defender, Plumadore, shared his client’s hopes to attend college and read a letter from the offender’s grandfather noting that this is the offender’s first violation and that the offender consistently achieves good marks in school. Plumadore argued that his client, like all human beings, has made mistakes, but that his client has learned from them. “My client crossed the line and is remorseful.”
The jury decided to assign the offender 16 hours of community service, two sessions of Youth Court jury duty and a letter of apology to the homeowner.

Second Case

The second hearing focused on an offender, 16, who violated town code 153-4A by allegedly smoking marijuana with friends after hours in a public park. The court team for this hearing included Yannick Leusink as prosecutor, Alaina Martin as defender, Kristen Pontin as judge, Nesaj as clerk, Anthony Gratton as foreman and Jen Vu as victim advocate.

Martin pleaded with the jury to consider the fact that her client consistently makes the high honor roll and volunteers with the Best Buddies program at Shenendehowa, which fosters relationships with students with disabilities. “This was merely a slip-up,” she explained.

Vu read a letter written by Town Supervisor Phil Barrett to the court. In the letter, Barrett explained the larger impact of the offender’s decisions. He called the case “troubling” because of the use of marijuana, which he described as a dangerous “gateway drug” and spoke of the time police officers must divert from other work to respond to crimes like this.

After hearing from both the prosecution and the defense, the jury decided to assign 20 hours of community service and two sessions of jury duty to the offender.

The Youth Court “team,” comprising six different roles, rotates every hearing since there are 160 students who have been accepted into the program. “We do a lot of recruiting in the spring with help from the Shenendehowa school district. Kids have to apply to be in the program,” said Councilwoman Standaert.

While jurors are not required to complete training, the other court team members must attend six training sessions that begin in November. The sessions are run by community board members, the town attorney, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Office, New York State Troopers, Saratoga County Probation Department, Victim Advocates and the Director of the Saratoga County Youth Bureau. Each session is an hour-and-a-half to two hours long.

“A lot of these kids go on to pursue criminal justice careers,” Standaert said. “They become attorneys or become involved with law enforcement”

The program, which stresses the importance of restorative rather than retributive justice, is entering its second year.

“Before I was on the [town] board many years ago, there was a youth court in the county and the town of Clifton Park participated,” Standaert said.
That particular program was funded by a grant that ran out. When Standaert took office, she and Supervisor Barrett worked together to re-create the program without grants, with hopes of making the program more sustainable.

“Mr. Barrett asked me to spearhead the program and collaboratively we’ve done that with the help of volunteers,” Standaert said. She noted the work of coordinator Sandy Roth, who has “helped tremendously.”

Zurez Memon, a student representative who was appointed to the board before this year’s session began, explained the importance of the Youth Court as a restorative justice system. “Our existing system does not help progress society as a whole. The system doesn’t improve upon the defendants,” he said in between the hearings. The Youth Court aims to help the defendants learn from their mistakes at a young age, deter them from committing future offenses and become assets to the community.

The next set of hearings are set at Clifton Park Town Hall on Jan. 13.