By Kassie Parisi
CLIFTON PARK — A townwide program that gives young offenders a second chance after committing a crime has entered continues to go strong after a few years.
The Clifton Park Youth Court recently entered into its fourth year. The confidential process involves taking in young offenders, usually teens, who have committed some sort of crime ranging from misdemeanors or, in some cases, non-violent felonies.
There are Youth Courts in municipalities throughout the Capital Region.
The teens are able to go through the Youth Court process and be given a sentence by their fellow teens. Once the sentence is completed, the crime is wiped from the offender’s record.
Town Council member Amy Standaert spearheaded the Youth Court program four years ago. The program had previously existed in town and received grant funding, but the grant ultimately ran out, leading to the suspension of the program. But now, there are at least 150 kids involved and the program functions on a $3,000 budget from the town.
At one hearing, there are at least 12 students involved: two attorneys, a judge, a clerk, a foreman, a victim advocate, and at least six jurors.
Standaert said that she often begins recruitment while students are as young as sixth grade, visiting social studies classes for information presentations. Many Youth Court participants stick with the program throughout their entire high school careers.
To go through a Youth Court trial, the defendants are required to have pleaded guilty already in town or county court. After meeting with Standaert to discuss the crime, they are then moved through a trial process with a jury of their peers, who are also students.
As a result, it is not the job of the Youth Court jury to determine the defendant’s guilt. Rather, it is the jury’s job to agree on a suitable sentence, which could include written apologies, or community service hours. Mandatory requirements for sentencing include a minimum of 10 hours of community service, and one Youth Court jury duty. And if a defendant is referred to Youth Court but refuses to plead guilty, they aren’t permitted into the program.
To apply, students must fill out an application and go through an interview process. The application process itself, Standaert said, functions as a real world indicator of whether or not the student would be a strong Youth Court candidate.
“They need to write. They have to use good handwriting. They have to articulate. They have to tell me things and get references. So that’s my start of the real world training,” she said.
The point of Youth Court, Standaert said, is to teach kids to take responsibility for the actions, but she can’t help them if they don’t want to do that. The defendants, she said, understand that by entering Youth Court, they’re waiving their right to be innocent until proven guilty.
“It’s a restorative justice program,” Standaert said. “It’s to help these kids take responsibility and be accountable for their behavior.”
One of the most important aspects of Youth Court, Standaert explained, is to function as a safety net for young kids who might fall through the cracks of the regular justice system. They help out around 12 kids a year, she said. They have seen 44 cases in four years, and the cases are referred to Standaert via the public safety department or the Shenendehowa Central School District. One of her hopes for the future of Youth Court is to grow it even more, and help even more kids.
The most daunting aspect of Youth Court for many participants is the peer aspect of the program. The offending students can sometimes become nervous about having to see their jurors at school, and the kids on the other side sometimes express anxiety over having to see the students who they judged around town as well.
But the things that happen in Youth Court stay inside Youth Court, Standaert said, and the top priority is making sure that students on both sides know that what’s going on inside the courtroom isn’t personal. Rather, she said, it’s meant to allow kids on both sides to grow.
“All the offenders that are in this program are good kids,” Standaert said. “They’re good kids that I know aren’t going to bully their prosecutor in the hallway, because this prosecutor has a job to do. I make it very clear that these kids are there to help them.”