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Youthful Offenders Face Court of Peers in N.Y. Town

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Newburgh, N.Y.--Howard Jones, a bright but underachieving 7th grader at South Junior High School, has had his first brush with the law. Charged with shoplifting, the 12-year-old now faces the prospect of a misdemeanor conviction that could follow him for life.

But Howard is lucky. If he is found guilty, he will probably be sentenced to a specified number of hours of community service and assigned to family counseling. More important, he will get a close-up view of the justice system--including a jury of his peers--without the threat of a criminal record.

What distinguishes Howard's case from those of hundreds of similar youths who get into trouble with the law each year is the forum in which he will be tried. Howard Jones will be tried before this town's youth court, where scores of junior-high-school-age offenders answer to their peers, not the criminal justice system, for misconduct.

The Jones case is a hypothetical one, but many youngsters fitting Howard's description are being tried weekly here and in youth courts across the country. In these programs, trained high-school-age volunteers assume the courtroom roles of judge, lawyer, bailiff, and clerk in after-school hours to try local youths on charges of minor violations and misdemeanors.

Apprentices of System

Such youth courts have been in existence in the United States since the 1930's, says Richard Mandell, a former lawyer who now serves as co-director of the Newburgh youth court.

But today the courts represent a growing grassroots phenomenon that offers a more highly evolved means of addressing the concerns first raised a half-century ago: how to nip criminal behavior in the bud with a swift, fair, accessible process carried out by apprentices of the justice system.

Because no central governing body oversees the youth courts, no comprehensive statistics are available on how many of these alternative-justice programs exist. The Newburgh program is one of 14 in New York State.

Respect for Law

Advocates of youth courts suggest that they foster respect for the law more effectively than do the alternatives. Mr. Mandell, for instance, points out that before his court was established in 1983, youths who had been charged with minor offenses encountered months of delays before being scheduled to appear before adult judges at the distant Goshen County Court.

And, although the court appearance might have resulted in a warning or a required community-service stint, Mr. Mandell believes the process usually left little impression on the youths. He and other youth-court proponents maintain that the inefficiency of the system was more likely to foster repeat offenses.

Class Divisions?

Even those who tout the youth courts, however, acknowledge that they are not a panacea. Critics go further, charging that the courts4can, in fact, be unfair to the less advantaged. They note that in a city like Newburgh, which is racially and economically stratified, disadvantaged defendants from one side of town are often judged by highly motivated high-school students from the other side of town.

"The program is not as good if there aren't blacks and Hispanics" on the bench, Mr. Mandell acknowledges, "but we can't ensure that they'll volunteer."

Arthur Powell, a black civic leader here, agrees that the class divisions can pose problems. "There are two different patterns, two different lifestyles here," he says. "If I were a youth, I would not like to go into court to be judged by people I have little in common with. If a judge is an A student, I may think he or she is better than I am, in a different category than I am. I may think that judge is not going to understand me."

Court Referrals

Newburgh's youth court, a $26,000-a-year cooperative enterprise housed in the city's Public Safety Building and supported by grants from the Orange County Youth Bureau and the municipal police department, receives juvenile defendants through referrals from the youth officers who confer with adult staff members of the youth court.

All activities of the court are supervised by four full-time staff members--Mr. Mandell, a co-director who also serves as a detective, a program coordinator, and a family counselor. These individuals handle all facets of the program, although final decisions on sentencing always rest with the student judges themselves.

The charge most frequently brought before the court is assault, with incidents of gang fighting and brawls between individual students the most common violation.

The sentences handed down by the court's judges vary, but usually constitute some form of community service. A group of boys found guilty of breaking and entering a local men's shop last year was ordered to paint over the graffiti scrawled over an exterior wall of the shop. "We try to be creative with sentencing," says Mr. Mandell.

Training Sessions

Students spend 19 weeks in training to participate in the youth-court program. In training sessions, they dissect hypothetical cases and study a manual, written by Mr. Mandell, that serves as the sole text for trainees.

The manual gives the agenda for each training session and for the mock trial; explains the duties and the legal language of court officials; and provides statutory definitions ranging from disorderly conduct to unlawful dealing with fireworks. It also includes a glossary defining such terms as the Brady Doctrine, the Miranda warning, and prima facie evidence.

At a typical training session, a guest lawyer presents a step-by-step analysis of how a hypothetical case might play out in an authentic trial. Lawyers, detectives, and youth counselors join the trainees to provide additional expertise.

All facets of the case are studied from the perspective of witness accounts, prosecuting and defense attorneys, and the judge. Drawing on personal experience and anecdotes, the lawyer explains how witnesses are prepared for testimony and how a case is organized before trial.

The lawyer stresses the importance of breaking a case into its "elements"--a succession of legal points attorneys must satisfy to build a sound argument. Referring to the three volumes of New York State penal law, he or she might remind the group that "nothing is a crime unless the legislature has said it's a crime."

At intervals throughout the talk, the lawyer will quiz members of the group to assess their understanding of the process. If the answers are enthusiastic and precocious, as is usually the case, the trainees will be ready when the hypothetical case is replaced by a real one in a matter of weeks.

Legal Views

A key benefit of the youth-court program, Mr. Mandell notes, is the opportunity it gives teen-agers to learn about the law and human nature.

Kim Taylor, a high-school senior who has been with the program since 1983, says it has widened the student judges' awareness. "We've started to realize how much we have," she says.

"My attitude toward people has changed as a result of doing this," she adds. "I know now that there are parents who don't have regard for the law, either."

The students' involvement with the court program has also influenced their ideas about crime in the larger sense. Those who have been with the program from its beginning say they are convinced that crime originates in the home, according to Mr. Mandell.

Many volunteers also say law has taken on an allure for them because of their youth-court service. "It makes you realize how all-encompassing the law is," says Joanne Tower, a senior. Three of the student judges say they are now seriously considering law-related careers as a direct outgrowth of their court experience.

Although school administrators have lauded the program and social-studies teachers have urged their students to take part in it, thus far there has been no official connection between the program and Newburgh's high-school curriculum.

"I think we could do more with that," Mr. Mandell says. "Historically, police departments have a hard time getting involved with high schools." Discussions are under way, he says, about allotting some form of credit to students active in the court.

Commitment Required

The court program's average hearing load of three cases a week requires about four hours of actual program time from each student involved, plus additional time for preparation. But, when asked if the workload interferes with their school work, the volunteers answer "no," without hesitation.

"We don't let it interfere," says one. "It's not time-consuming because you like what you're doing," adds a second.

Commitment is the only prerequisite for court membership, but a volunteer absent for more than three consecutive sessions forfeits a place in the group. Once the rigors of the court work became apparent, program officials say, the number of volunteers dwindled. There are now 75 students involved.

Still, commitment and hard work have their rewards, according to Kim Taylor.

"Being in the youth court motivates me scholastically," she says. ''And some of my friends who take constitutional law and business are getting more out of the courses because they do this."

She and other student volunteers say that although such tasks as fact-finding are sometimes arduous, they are simple compared with determining a defendant's innocence or guilt.

"It's hard when you don't know when they're definitely guilty or not," says Jennifer McConnell, also a senior in high school and a youth-court judge. "What do you do with a boy who honestly didn't know what he did was wrong?"

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