Examination of the Youth Court System

juvenile-courtby Alex Clark –

A few months ago, the Vanguard reported on Yolo County Superior Court Presiding Judge David Rosenberg’s October 2010 announcement that the court would be assigning a second judge to hear juvenile dependency and delinquency cases.  According to Judge Rosenberg, the result will be a decrease in judges on the criminal side and an increase of judges on the juvenile side of the court.  Among other acknowledgements, Judge Rosenberg said this change “recognizes our steady commitment that children in our juvenile system continue to receive adequate time and attention by our Judges.”

The Vanguard article expressed concerns regarding the negative impact and potential backlog associated with removing a felony criminal judge without filling the vacancy.  Skepticism as to whether or not a second full-time judge was necessary was also touched on in the article.



It is at this point in the ongoing county-wide budget discussion that the innovative concept of “youth court” programs, also referred to as “peer” or “teen” court programs, may be worth considering, both by the community and influential leaders within the justice system. 

A youth court program could be a reasonable alternative, as it could free up much needed resources and resolve juvenile delinquency cases in a timely manner, to the judicial changes put forth by the court and may bring added relief to Yolo County’s “justice partners.”

Youth courts, as described by the National Association of Youth Courts (NAYC), “are structured to provide positive alternative sanctions for first-time offenders by providing a peer-driven sentencing mechanism that allows young people to take responsibility, to be held accountable, and to make restitution.”

Furthermore, youth court programs seek to foster “respect for the rule of law, help develop positive citizenship attitudes, encourage civic engagement, and promote educational success through a diversity of service learning opportunities, strategies and activities.”

A major component of most youth court programs is the application of positive peer pressure to influence adolescent behavior.  There are said to be roughly 1,400 youth court programs nationwide and 80 operating in California according to the NAYC data cited by the Judicial Council’s California Courts website.  Youth, under the supervision and direction of adults and legal professionals, serve as prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, law enforcement personnel, bailiffs and jury members.

Adolescents acting in the various capacities outlined above, along with what is usually an adult judge presiding over the proceedings, function within the parameters of the youth court program to sentence “minor delinquent and status offenses and other problem behaviors.”

Agencies involved in the administration and operation of youth courts include juvenile justice courts, private non-profit organizations, law enforcement agencies, juvenile probation departments and schools.  The National Youth Court Database (NYCD) indicates the following:

  • Approximately 42% of youth court programs in operation are juvenile justice system-based programs.
  • Approximately 22% of youth court programs are community-based and are incorporated as, or operated by, private nonprofit organizations.
  • Approximately 36% of youth court programs are school-based.

According to the NYCD, 93% of youth court programs require youth offenders to admit guilt before they are allowed to participate.  Following their admission of guilt, youth offenders will then have the consequences of their illegal behavior imposed on them by their peers.   The most common offences dealt with are theft, vandalism and alcohol-related.  However, youth court programs also handle offenses such as truancy, assault and even fraud.

The punishments meted out by youth offenders’ peers vary.  The NYCD lists community service, oral and written apologies, as well as essay writing as the top three punishments.  Other punishments handed down include jury duty (youth offender must serve on a youth court jury), victim awareness classes, counseling, educational workshops and restitution.

The average reported annual budget for youth court programs is approximately $32,767 according to the NYCD, while other research puts that figure just under $50,000.

Brief Examination of the Sacramento Youth Court and Placer County Peer Court

Sacramento Youth Court (SYC)

The Sacramento Youth Court (SYC) service was re-launched in January 2006.  It was done so by the Center for Youth Citizenship (CYC) in conjunction with the Superior Court of California, Sacramento County Probation Department, as well as the County’s District Attorney and Public Defender offices.

The CYC describe the SYC as an “alternative diversion program designed to redirect juvenile offenders and prevent them from becoming entangled in the criminal justice system.”  Youth involved in the SYC function as prosecutors, public defenders, clerks, bailiffs and jurors.  Moreover, through the guidance of “their teachers and legal professionals, students prepare to argue their assigned case in front of a youth jury, responsible for determining a fair and just sentence for the juvenile offender.”

The SYC has a volunteer Superior Court Judge who presides over its bi-monthly proceedings.

In 2009, the CYC released its report on the SYC, Recap of the Three-Year Program Period. Between January 2006 and May 2009, the SYC processed 131 cases ranging from petty theft to felony offenses.  According to the report, which includes all data available between January 2006 and April 2009, youth offenders participating in the SYC ended up as follows: 72% completed their sentencing, 22% failed to complete their sentencing, 5% re-offended and 4% failed to appear.

Youth offenders completed 877 hours of community service ordered through the SYC and youth offenders from 51 different school communities in the Sacramento area were involved.

The report emphasizes the SYC’s impact on the community through non-offender student participation, as well as the involvement of judicial officials and legal professionals.   Moreover, youth attorneys completed 976 hour, 2,196 youth jury hours were completed and judicial officials and legal professionals performed 500 volunteer hours.  Finally, 1,350 students from 18 different Sacramento County schools were involved in the SYC. 

The CYC believes the program helps the youth involved develop “both a sense of responsibility and community-mindedness.”  What’s more, these youth have the opportunity to engage “in positive relationships with adult mentors and gain academic and workplace connections.”

Placer County Peer Court

In 1992, the Placer County Peer Court held its first proceedings. A coalition of county department heads created and implemented the Peer Court in response to the increasing number of low-level juvenile offenses.  The Peer Court now takes place four times a month and has been operating as a non-profit organization as of October 2009, which was apparently a necessary measure for it to remain in effect following significant budget cuts within the county.

Similar to other youth court programs, Peer Court allows students to take on the role of prosecutors, defense attorneys, clerks, bailiffs and jurors.  Past defendants are sometimes included in the juries as all youth offenders are required to serve on a Peer Court jury at least twice as a condition of their sentencing.

Peer Court sentencing options include, “Graffiti abatement, ride along with law enforcement, impose a curfew, parenting classes, mediation, face-to-face apology, fines, restitutions, essay (jury selects topic), jail tour, view drug and alcohol films, attend a class (drug and alcohol diversion, theft education, decision making, anger control, tobacco cessation).”  Jurors are permitted to come up with their own sentencing requirements as well.

The minimum sentencing requirement for each defendant is 10 hours of community service and jury duty (twice).  Jurors are allowed to order a defendant to serve a maximum of 100 hours of community service.

All youth referred to Peer Court, be it by the probation department, law enforcement agency or school, have admitted guilt.  Therefore, the youth offenders are referred to the Peer Court for sentencing purposes only and are first time offenders.  The Peer Court has heard 3,000 cases to date and has a recidivism rate below 3%, according to them.

In addition to the Peer Court, Placer County developed and implemented a school curriculum in 1992 that focuses on juvenile rights and responsibilities.  The program has expanded each subsequent year and as of the 2006-2007 school year was taught at 15 Placer County high schools.  The program offers lessons and discussions led by speakers from the Placer County Probation Department, District Attorney’s Office, Public Defender’s Office, Superior Court, as well as personnel from local law enforcement agencies and convicted felons.

According to the Placer County Peer Court, “At a cost of $3,000 to $5,000 to send a juvenile case through the regular probation and juvenile court procedures, Peer Court is saving Placer County money.”  The school and court program functioned on a $200,000 budget, a portion of which funded the Peer Court Coordinator position, in fiscal year 2006-2007.  Roughly “5000 students were served through the school and court programs in fiscal year 2006.” That amounts to approximately $40 per student, but of course not all of the students served were juvenile offenders.  They also note that the Peer Court handled one third of all juvenile citations issued in Placer County (presumably in fiscal year 2006).

Youth Court’s Cost-Effectiveness

A compelling reason for the implementation of a youth court program is its relatively low operation cost.  A 2005 American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF) report, Youth Court: A Community Solution for Embracing At-Risk Youth, claims that the “average costs of youth court programs are estimated as $430 per youth served and $480 per youth successfully completing a sentence.”  This per youth figure was calculated using an estimated annual operating budget of $49,000.

Precisely drawn comparisons of youth court programs’ operating costs with that of other juvenile justice programs is difficult to nail down due to the varying costs of the latter.   However, the Volunteer Center of Riverside County and the Riverside Police Department report that “the cost per juvenile on probation is anywhere from $500 to $2,400. By handling its portion of the juvenile misdemeanor cases, RYC [Riverside Youth Court] provides the Probation Department with an approximate savings of $50,000 to $240,000 a year.”

According to the Placer County Peer Court, the cost of processing a juvenile through the traditional probation and court process ranges from $3,000 to $5,000.  The $430 to $480 per youth costs, reported by the AYPF, associated with youth court participation illustrates a contrast in cost between the two approaches to juvenile justice. 

Although it’s difficult to narrow down the exact amount saved by jurisdictions utilizing youth court programs, the research suggests that the operating cost associated with youth court programs is significantly less than the traditional juvenile court processes.  The relatively low operation cost is due to the youth court programs’ reliance on youth and adult volunteers.

Youth Court Overall Effectiveness

Although youth courts have become a popular approach to juvenile justice throughout the nation, studies on its effectiveness are lacking.  There are few comparative research publications focused on the efficacy of youth courts and traditional juvenile justice methods in reducing recidivism rates.

A 2002 report, The Impact of Youth Courts on Young Offenders, cited by the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Program (OJJDP), measured recidivism rates among youth participating in youth courts to those participating in the traditional juvenile justice system.

The OJJDP, in reference to the report, states that the “evaluation suggests teen courts are a promising alternative for the juvenile justice system: all four teen court sites reported relatively low recidivism rates.”  In two of the four states measured (Alaska and Missouri) the teens were “significantly less likely to be re-referred to the juvenile justice system for a new offense within 6 months of the original offense.”  The remaining two states (Arizona and Maryland) were found to have differences, between the youth participating in either approach, that were “statistically insignificant.”  This study concludes that youth courts may be preferable alternatives to the traditional juvenile justice system in some jurisdictions.

However, in a 2008 study, an experimental evaluation of teen courts which used an experimental design to compare a Maryland teen court diversion program to a control group formally processed through the Department of Juvenile Justice, results were not as favorable. 

According to the OJJDP, the “results consistently showed less-favorable outcomes for the youths who participated in teen court, compared with those youths who were formally processed, including significantly more delinquent behavior following teen court and lower values in measurements of beliefs in conventional rules.”

The report authors reportedly suggested that the use of peers in the teen court process might not decrease or prevent recidivism for youth offenders participating in it.  An example mentioned from the 2008 study by the OJJDP is that “youths in the program may be embarrassed by peers witnessing the experience or the program may succeed at shaming but not at reintegrating youths.”

Backlog Reduction of the Juvenile Justice System

The AYFP reports that in jurisdictions with youth court programs, over 9% of all juvenile arrests were diverted to the youth courts.  Furthermore, given “that youth courts may absorb as much as nine percent of the juvenile arrests in a jurisdiction, their presence in any jurisdiction will have an important impact in ensuring that more juveniles who are arrested face consequences for their actions while avoiding a backlog in the juvenile courts, and preserving the courts’ ability to process the most severe cases.” 

In Placer County, the Peer Court handled one third of all juvenile citations issued in the county.  A youth court with similar efficiency would likely save its jurisdiction public monies, all the while freeing up the courts and personnel involved in such cases so they can focus their efforts more intently on the most serious offenders.

According to the Placer County Peer Court, larger caseloads brought about by budget and personnel cuts have forced probation officers to focus a larger portion of their time on serious offenders, which leaves fewer resources available to handle the less serious youth offenders.  Consequently, first-time youth offenders tend to only receive a “slap on the wrist.”  They suggest that without “serious consequences to contend with, these young offenders will come back again and again until they are well entrenched in criminal behavior, commit a serious offense and are finally brought within the jurisdiction of a formal juvenile court process.” They argue that Peer Court holds entry-level youth offenders accountable and prevents future criminal behavior.

Beyond the direct impact youth court programs have on the juvenile justice system, the effects may be felt indirectly as youth offenders participating in youth court may have their criminal behavior properly addressed and sanctioned early on by their peers.  This, proponents argue, would relieve the juvenile and adult criminal courts, as these young offenders are less likely to re-offend; thus resulting in fewer cases being processed by the judicial system. 

Similarly, the Volunteer Center of Riverside County and the Riverside Police Department report that “Police, judges and district attorneys all consider RYC [Riverside Youth Court] as a tool to proactively prevent criminal behavior by positively influencing at-risk individuals.”

Timelines and Accountability

In the traditional juvenile justice system, months can pass between the time a youth offender is arrested or cited and when they’re faced with sanctions.  Youth court programs can increase response time greatly.  The AYFP reports that from “the time a youth is charged with an offense to the time the case is heard varies from two to four weeks.”  Moreover, “hearings take 15 minutes to one hour and completion of the disposition requirements [traditional juvenile justice system] may take 30 –90 days (on average).”

The positive impact of a court’s sanctions could increase, according to some researchers, by shortening the amount of lapsed time between the commission of the criminal act and its sanction.

It is not unusual, due to the increased workloads of probation officers and backlog of the juvenile justice system, for the crimes of first-time youth offenders to result in no sanctions or a “slap on a wrist.”  That is to say, the youth offender is told to go home and “be good.”  Some youth courts seek to ensure that youth offenders are held accountable for their unlawful behavior, even imposing constructive sanctions in cases in which the offense is seemingly minor and would likely have not been sanctioned under the traditional juvenile justice system.

Effects on Youth

The youth court provides all youth involved, offender and volunteer alike, with an opportunity “to learn about the law, the juvenile justice system, and the responsibilities of a citizen in a democratic society, while developing skills in public speaking, leadership, and mediation.”  The AYPF report goes on to state that an “unintended but positive consequence of the program is that ‘youth who do not have special athletic or academic skills’ are given an opportunity to be leaders and increase their self-confidence through volunteer work in the program.”

Perhaps one of the more interesting statistics mentioned by the AYPF is the following:

“More than 90% of the study participants ‘agreed’ or ‘strongly agreed’ that positive peer pressure, a better understanding of the law, and increasing knowledge of the responsibilities inherent to citizenship, were characteristics of the youth court process most strongly related to recidivism prevention.”

At 96%, study participants rated positive peer behavior as the number one youth court characteristic contributing to social behavior.

The report also suggests that “if negative peer pressure can induce adolescents to anti-social behavior, the exposure to peers in positions of leadership who model positive behaviors provide the young offender with a new perspective about their role in society, and a peer support group for times of need.”

Youth court educates the youth involved about the legal system and provides student volunteers with experiences that will serve them well in their future academic and professional endeavors.

Youth Court Summit

In 2010, the annual three-day Youth Court Summit was held at UC Davis.  In attendance were “youth and peer court staff, juvenile bench officers, education experts, and members of youth-focused associations,” all for the purpose of sharing ideas and practices about youth courts.

This year’s summit is scheduled to run from June 24-26 at Chapman University in Anaheim, CA.

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. E Roberts Musser

    Outstanding article. This is one example of the restorative justice model, which can work in certain limited cases of less violent juvenile crime. There are a number of positives in regard to a program like this, if the right type of offenders are chosen:
    1. Reduced cost
    2. Low recidivism assuming apprpropriate offenders chosen for program
    3. Keeps youth out of the prison system, where they often learn how to be a better criminal
    4. Fosters more immediate consequences for wrongful actions – no slaps on the wrist
    5. Forces a connection between the crime committed and the victim, in which the actual victim receives direct restitution from the perpetrator

    I would actually like to see youth courts start in the schools first and foremost; and for more serious offenses youth courts in the county court system. I think it is an excellent model worth trying. Has anyone brougth this idea to Judge Rosenberg? If not, someone ought to…

  2. Ryan Kelly

    It is now common knowledge among juvenile justice professionals, that low-risk juvenile offenders actually get worse with meddling by the Court system. It is common practice to leave them alone and allow families to enforce discipline. It is a better use of funds to focus on mid to high risk populations (kids that are on the fast track toward prison as adults) where there is evidence that change can occur. I don’t know which study Musser is referring to where there is low recidivism with Youth Courts. There is evidence that the recidivism rate for Youth Courts is worse than the “slap on the hand” approach(if that’s what you want to call it). The sentencing by Youth Courts don’t appear to be evidence-based, which is a problem.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    To Ryan Kelly: Recidivism rates I took from article of two test cases –
    Sac County: “72% completed their sentencing, 22% failed to complete their sentencing, 5% re-offended and 4% failed to appear.”

    Placer County: “The Peer Court has heard 3,000 cases to date and has a recidivism rate below 3%, according to them.”

    I have no doubt that recidivism is directly related to the type of crime involved. A gang hardened juvenile is not suitable for this sort of system – only those juveniles who are guilty of fairly minor crimes, such as vandalism of the spray painting variety, that sort of thing.

    If you have ever seen the more recent version of “Scared Straight”, you begin to realize that a lot of these kids are actually reachable/salvageable. I’d rather try and do something on the front end, rather than try and mop up the mess on the back end after the damage is virtually irreparable…

    Also, just an anecdote I heard on television one time. A poor ghetto kid got into an altercation w another youth, pulled out a knife, and went to stick the youth in the belly. Fortunately, the kid with the knife was not successful, hitting the youth’s belt buckle. The kid w the knife was so shaken by the incident, realizing he had almost killed someone over something fairly minor, he immediately went home and had a “talk w God” as he put it. He promised he would turn his life around if God would give him the strength to make the change. This same man is now one of the most famous neurosurgeons in the country, and was successful in separating a pair of conjoined babies!

  4. Superfluous Man

    Thank you for the comment, Musser.

    “I would actually like to see youth courts start in the schools first and foremost; and for more serious offenses youth courts in the county court system.”

    Having them held or orchestrated by schools is certainly one option. However, the model doesn’t necessarily differ from that of the youth court programs held in an actual county court room, but it can. Here’s a little something from the Illinois Attorney General about school-based youth courts that I came across: http://www.illinoisattorneygeneral.gov/communities/youthadvocacy/school_yc.pdf

    “I think it is an excellent model worth trying. Has anyone brougth this idea to Judge Rosenberg? If not, someone ought to…”

    I don’t know if Judge Rosenberg has considered this. It would be interesting to hear his thoughts on this. From my research, this is a community concept and one that can be implemented by anyone.

  5. Alex Clark

    Ryan Kelly,

    I’m not sure if the youth court process would be considered “meddling” as it may be referred to in the traditional juvenile justice system, such as supervision (i.e. probation).

    As I mentioned in the article, the costs of youth court programs are not high, comparatively speaking, with average annual budgets estimated at slightly over 30K by a research article. In effect, it could be that a successful youth court program would free up additional resources and personnel so as to increase the focus (or focus more intently) on the populations you refer to.

    “There is evidence that the recidivism rate for Youth Courts is worse than the “slap on the hand” approach(if that’s what you want to call it).”

    Can you provide it? In the article I discuss the relatively minimal research that’s been published on the comparisons. However, from what I can tell, the recidivism rates for youth courts, namely the two I focused on in the article, are pretty low. Something to keep in mind about youth court is that it serves more than just the juvenile offender and is relatively inexpensive. Therefore, even if youth courts were not “better” at reducing recidivism rates among the low-risk population, that doesn’t mean the county could not still benefit from it.

    “The sentencing by Youth Courts don’t appear to be evidence-based, which is a problem.”

    What do you believe the sentencing determinations are based on?

  6. Ryan Kelly

    The recidivism rate might appear to be low, but it is very low anyway for the population served – low risk, 1st time offenders of non-violent offenses. This is why diversion away from the Court System is best. Programs such as “Scared Straight,” jail tours, lectures from incarcerated criminals, and other “get tough” programs are a failure. They do not work and are not evidence-based programs. Community Service, restitution, etc. works, but you don’t need a Youth Court for this. Diversion away from the Court system to programs run by local police can accomplish this. This is already happening in Davis and Yolo County. People may think this is just a “slap on the hand,” but actions that strengthen the family and involve the offender in constructive activities and, only when appropriate, counseling services is what works.

  7. Alex Clark

    Ryan Kelly,

    “The recidivism rate might appear to be low, but it is very low anyway for the population served – low risk, 1st time offenders of non-violent offenses.”

    Unless the rates have been fabricated or falsely represented, I think it’s accurate to say they are low. However, it’s true that the majority of cases heard by youth courts are generally first time offenders and non-violent. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the programs are ineffective reducing recidivism rates, though.

    For what it’s worth, youth court programs do deal with more serious and violent offenses, but it varies. For example, the National Association of Youth Courts reports that 67% of the nation’s youth court programs will “accept” (handle) an assault offense http://www.youthcourt.net/?page_id=24.

    In the case of the Sacramento Youth Court’s three year recap, 16% of all cases handled were felony offenses, while 10% were assaults and 8% weapons offenses http://www.youthcitizenship.org/le/yc/05-09 Highlights & Recap.pdf.

    Nevertheless, I’m sure there have been many non-violent first time juvenile offenders who later committed more serious and violent offenses as adults.

    “This is why diversion away from the Court System is best.”

    Youth court is a diversion of sorts. Despite it being a “court,” these programs are held and operated by schools (35%) and community-based (22%) organizations, while 42% are juvenile justice system-based programs as I write in the article. There are real world consequences, but youth courts are not the same as the traditional juvenile justice courts.

    “Programs such as ‘Scared Straight,’ jail tours, lectures from incarcerated criminals, and other ‘get tough’ programs are a failure.”

    Youth court programs are by no means akin to “scared straight” programs. What’s more, this restorative justice approach is not considered a “get tough” program, at least not how I’ve become to understand youth court programs.

    “They do not work and are not evidence-based programs.”

    What do you mean by this? You stated earlier that youth courts were not evidence-based and you never really elaborated.

    “Community Service, restitution, etc. works, but you don’t need a Youth Court for this. Diversion away from the Court system to programs run by local police can accomplish this.”

    I’m beginning to question the clarity of my article or whether you have missed certain portions of it. Youth court programs are very much centered around the community (namely community service by engaging offenders, youth volunteers and adult volunteers) and diverting juveniles away from the traditional court system. Furthermore, according to the NAYC, community service is the most popular “sentencing option” among all programs with 99% using it. Following it are oral/written apologies, essays, educational workshops, jury duty (serve on a youth court jury) and restitution, in that order.

    You’re right, local law enforcement agencies can operate such programs. Some youth court programs are operated by local law enforcement agencies.

    Unless, by diversion you mean referrals to the probation department. Is that what you mean?

    “This is already happening in Davis and Yolo County.”

    To my knowledge, nothing similar to a youth court program is in operation in Yolo County. It’s also worth noting that youth court programs do not just benefit the offender, but non-offender youth and others.

    “but actions that strengthen the family and involve the offender in constructive activities and, only when appropriate, counseling services is what works.”

    I think that youth court programs operate with a similar core belief.

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