Youth courts are becoming institutionalized across the U.S., says Time magazine. In 1994, there were just 78 such courts; today the number is 1,035 and growing. Some are run by schools, others by police departments or nonprofit groups. The junior courts will hold more than 100,000 trials this year, says the National Youth Court Center in Lexington, Ky. Advocates say they help help relieve criminal-court backlogs and can turn around kids who has gone wrong. The Urban Institute says youth courts are often more effective in preventing repeat crimes than are other methods used to discipline first-time minor offenders, such as letters of warning or referrals to juvenile court. “Youth courts provide a more thorough and personal response,” says Jeffrey Butts, who directed the Urban Institute study.
The peer-court concept dates to 1947 in Mansfield, Ohio, where kids handled neighborhood trials for young bicycle snatchers. The modern youth court started in the early 1970s, when a few cities experimented with a more formal kind of peer justice. In recent years, the movement has gained momentum, supported by police departments and local governments eager for justice that works cost effectively. An entire youth-court trial typically takes less than an hour, including deliberations. Nationally, the program’s average cost per case is about $480. Probation costs about $1,635, while the cost of trying a juvenile in criminal court usually ranges from $21,000 to $84,000.