How Washington, D.C., Youth Court Tries to Get Kids Back on Track


The New York Times profiles Washington, D.C.’s Youth Court, one of 1,000 such institutions around the nation. The capital’s youth court heard 675 cases in the last fiscal year. About one fifth of juveniles arrested in the city are sent to the court, which tends to work with older teens and more serious offenses than do other youth courts. The court is designed to give first-time non-violent offenders between 12 and 17 a way to stay out of the formal juvenile justice system. Cases are heard by juries composed of the offenders' peers: other teens who have been through the same process — some as recently as the week before.

Local judicial officials must agree to divert an arrested teen to the court. It can't investigate guilt or innocence, so teens who don't admit responsibility stay in the formal system. In Youth Court, a teenager can be sentenced to write essays, make apologies, attend boys' or girls' discussion groups, or pay restitution; almost everyone is sentenced to serve on the Youth Court jury. Teens who don't complete the requirements in 120 days go back to a real judge. “The idea is to take that first encounter with the law, especially for minor things, and use it to put them back on the right track, turn it into something positive,” said Carolyn Dallas, the court’s director. Since 2003, the one-year re-arrest rate for people who come through Youth Court is 11 percent, compared to the formal juvenile justice re-arrest rate of about 25 percent.

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