RED HOOK — The Red Hook Community Justice Center's Youth Court celebrated the graduation of 12 of its members last week, and swore in 11 new members who will serve as judges, jurors and attorneys deciding real-life cases involving fellow teenagers.
The court, held twice a week after school at the justice center at 88 Visitation Place, reviews smaller offenses, such as larceny, assault, truancy and graffiti, court coordinators said.
Offenders, who are between the ages of 12 and 18, are referred to as respondents, not defendants, and their participation is wholly voluntary. They must admit to having committed the crime before taking part in youth court, and those who decline to participate are not penalized.
"It's a really good positive peer-pressure program and a leadership program," said Sabrina Carter, the justice center's youth and committee programs coordinator and a former Red Hook Youth Court member.
"To have this peer-to-peer interaction is really powerful. We were all teenagers at some point — but what affected teenagers when we were younger as opposed to what affects them today is very different."
Teenagers can be referred to the court by police — similar to a desk appearance summons for an adult — or referred there by a judge as part of an order of probation.
The sanctions that are handed down typically include community service and letters of apology, and court members often perform community service projects alongside the respondents. When their sanction is completed, a note goes in their court file stating that they participated.
The court heard about 160 cases in 2012, Carter said, and close to 90 percent of respondents complied with its sanctions. For those who do not complete their sanctions, there is no automatic consequence.
Instead, they could be referred to a different agency or selected for another kind of intervention program, Carter added.
"It's not, 'OK, you're going to jail.' Obviously, he's going through something, or his family's going through something. We try to work with them," said the justice center's project director, Jessica Colon.
"It's a really effective prevention method for kids who are just starting to go down the wrong path. You don't want to sanction them so harshly yet, which could actually be detrimental. It's a kind of prevention and diversion program."
Up to 20 teenagers ages 14 to 18 can serve on the youth court, Carter said. They must undergo six to eight weeks of rigorous training, then pass a youth court bar exam. Those selected serve six-month terms and can remain members of the court until they age out.
Court members "gain a tremendous amount from just knowing that they're helping their community and contributing," Colon said.
"A lot of teenagers want to contribute but often don't know how," she said. "They get exposed to law, our judge, our lawyers, they make a lot of connections. We take them on college trips and just give them a lot of exposure."
At Thursday's ceremony — at which the young members were sworn in with help from 76th Precinct commander Capt. Jeffrey Schiff — graduating members reflected on their service on youth court. Carter recorded some of their statements.
"Youth court isn't just a job, it's like a family," said graduating member, Nadejeh Seon, 17. "Not many can say every week, 'I helped somebody today or changed someone's life.'"
Seon then addressed the court's incoming members.
"You being here makes you leaders," Seon said. "Not many people would be here to step up to the challenge."