A few months ago, I had the opportunity to attend a panel discussion called "Culture Shift, Alternatives to Suspension: Creating Connections for All Students," which highlighted the effectiveness of a restorative justice and youth court as an innovative approach to juvenile justice.
Unlike the traditional model, Youth Court gives a voice to victims and offenders. Once these hearings are complete, offenders will often take responsibility and make reparations, either directly to the victim or to the school. Youth court is used from minor infractions to early intervention for first-time misdemeanor offenders through peer trial and sentencing.
There are approximately 1300 Youth Courts (YC) throughout the nation, with 65 in California. Marin County Youth Court Director Don Carney first brought the Youth Court program Marin County.
After the presentation, I asked him a few questions about the strengths and challenges of Youth Court.
Edutopia: What are some of the benefits of youth court and restorative justice over traditional discipline?
Don Carney: Outcomes from peers using restorative justice programs are considerably stronger than the results of punitive sanctions deployed by adults. Law enforcement and probation do not have the recourses to thoroughly address first-time offenders; they tend to give a lecture and release if they do not have a local diversion program. Youth Courts thoroughly address the violation and provide lots of preventive services. YCs are also changing peer norms about crime, alcohol and drug use.
Edutopia: What ages are the most appropriate for youth court?
DC: I have worked with youth as young as 10 and as old as 18 (if the violation was committed when they were 17) but generally the youth we serve are between 12 and 17.
Edutopia: Where have you seen it work? Where have you seen it not work so well?
DC: I have just returned from the annual California YC Summit attended by 26 of the 65 YCs through out the state. They all reported great success. The biggest challenge for the YCs is the funding. The Sonoma YC just recently folded due to lack of funding. I hope to help interested students in Sonoma resurrect their program.
Edutopia: What are some of the main factors of success?
DC: Generally the biggest hurdle is getting buy-in from the authorities. Those with power are reluctant to give it up; no big surprise. It took almost 3 years to get the buy-in from all the Marin authorities.
The next task is to get consistent referrals. For instance, in 2004 our first year, we got 4 cases. Last year (09/10) we have held 170 cases. This is common challenge for new courts. Marin's opportunity to get consistent referrals came as the result of a grant only available to 15 Youth Courts in the state. The grant had to be in partnership with the local Superior Court and required the Youth Court to serve 200 youth and their families providing DUI prevention training.
Needless to say, when the Superior Court "suggests" to the Probation Department to provide cases to the Youth Court, it does in fact happen. That was our big break; we developed credibility and the evaluator from the State Administrative Office of the Courts deemed Marin's DUI training "the program to be emulated."
An additional factor of success is the quality of training provided to the youth. When Marin started we got great training from our Public Defender and District Attorney; now new Youth Courts are supported by the National Youth Court Center who provides excellent training materials and forms to start a program.
Edutopia: Aside from the kids, who else needs to be "bought in" for the system to work? Can a teacher do this in the classroom, without necessarily the support of his or her principal?
DC: Sure, restorative justice can be deployed in lots of settings. It can be as straightforward as a weekly check-in group using a restorative circle in the classroom. There is strong data to support that his approach reduces the need for behavioral management, reduces bullying and increases academic performance.
The support of the principal would be necessary if a restorative division from suspension program were to be implemented.
Marin County is economically, racially and culturally diverse, with communities that rarely interact. But, through the Youth Court program students from very different backgrounds learn about each other's lives and challenges while providing peer support and mutual respect for working towards positive goals. Structuring a venue where students can develop allies across class and race lines provides a great learning opportunity in how to successfully navigate our multicultural society.
To discuss restorative justice and youth court, and other social and emotional approaches to behavioral challenges, check out Edutopia's Social and Emotional Learning group