By Jeff Mays
Harlem youths committing minor crimes will be tried by a court made up of young people and sentenced to community service in an attempt to keep them out of the criminal justice system, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said.
Police and schools can already refer youngsters accused of crimes such as truancy and shoplifting to the Harlem Community Justice Center.
Speaking to 300 people at a town hall meeting in Harlem Hospital Thursday, Vance said his office was now going to do the same.
"We are trying to find alternatives to traditional prosecution when dealing with young kids," Vance said to applause.
Christopher Watler, project director for the justice center, said it is a bold and innovative step toward treating young offenders more fairly.
"Too many young people are coming into the criminal justice system on very low level offenses," he said.
"How the system deals with those cases is a fast process where there's not a lot of learning that goes on. The youth court offers another opportunity to get people to think about what's happening, and it is their peers that are talking to them, it's their community."
The court is made up of other young people in the community, many of whom have already gone through the youth court process. They receive specialized training and take roles as judges, lawyers and the jury.
The court will take on 16 to 19-year-olds charged with petty crimes such as shoplifting or fare beating. Typical penalties are community service and making the young person write a letter of apology.