At the Staten Island Youth Justice Center in New York City, teenagers ask the questions of defendants to provide low-level offenders with a transformative experience, one that might keep them from disappearing down the drain of the criminal justice system, says the New York Times. “We're not here to punish them,” said Edwin Saunders, an 18-year-old youth court member. “We're here to help them out.”
Almost all the 300 cases the youth court has heard since it was started last year began as real crimes with real arrests. Cases are referred by local criminal courts, the police and probation officers seeking to divert low-level offenders; petty larceny, vandalism and possession of marijuana are a constant. “We'd never a take case like armed robbery or murder,” said Melissa Gelber, of the Center for Court Innovation, which runs the Staten Island court along with three similar ones. “That's not appropriate for our model.” The teens who are part of the court act as judge, jury, prosecutor, and defense lawyer for defendants who have already admitted to their crimes. Instead of telling defendants to stay out of trouble for six months and to pay a small fine, the court issues sanctions. A 16-year-old who admitted to shoplifting got a fairly standard three hours of community service, attending a workshop on making good decisions, and writing an essay focused on a career.