Atlantic Cities

Why Is D.C. Abandoning an Effective Program That Keeps Kids Out of Jail?

Every year, Washington, D.C.'s Youth Court "tries" about 300 cases, in an effort to keep young first-time, non-violent offenders out of jail and the juvenile justice system.

Here's how it works: the teens explain their transgression to a jury of their peers (quite literally, as it's made up of students who also came before Youth Court). Then their parent or guardian outlines how the crime (mostly shoplifting, school fights, and marijuana possession) has hurt them.


Courtesy of Youth Court

The jury asks questions and doles out bits of hard-earned wisdom (at one session I attended, a teen suggested that a young woman accused of shoplifting find better friends). They then decide on a handful of "sanctions," including assigning an essay, an in-person or written apology, or a variety of counseling options.

The idea is that many kids who get picked up committing small crimes are not hardened criminals, they're just teenagers who suffer, like all teenagers, from a lack of impulse control. Rather then burdening them with a criminal record or jail time, why not give them a second chance?

"A lot of the youth that come here are youth that can be saved," says Youth Court executive director Carolyn Dallas. And it's shown results. In D.C., only 11 percent of teens who participate in youth court get arrested again. Teens who are sent through the regular juvenile court system have a 25 percent recidivism rate. (This holds true nationally — according to the New York Times, recidivism in youth courts is "from one-third to one-half the rate of teenagers processed for similar offenses in the formal system.") It's also less expensive: it costs about $500 to send a teenager through Youth Court, compared to nearly $2,000 in regular court.

But by the end of the day on Friday, the D.C. Youth Court will cease to exist, its operating budget having vanished into thin air.

D.C.'s Youth Court is one of the largest in the country, but its funding situation has always been precarious. Rather than including Youth Court in the District's annual budget, Dallas must apply each year for a grant from the Justice Grants Administration, a local agency that administers justice-related federal funds. But this year, her application was denied. Back in 2007, budget cuts forced the Youth Court to shut down for several weeks, but this time is different: the District's government has actually been blessed with a surplus for the past two years.

"We're a city service," Dallas says. "We should be funded like a city service." She estimates that she needs between $250,000 and $300,000 a year to keep the program running. Right now, Dallas is applying for federal government and non-profit grants in the hopes that she can open the office back up later this year. But it's a challenge, she says, to convince nonprofits to give to criminally inclined youth.

Justice Grants Administration director Melissa Hook would not lay out the specific reasons JGA did not fund the D.C. Youth Court this year, but she does say that the city has convened a panel to develop a more "comprehensive" set of youth diversion programs "with some urgency" (she predicts that they will release "something" by the end of next week, though she wouldn't say what), focusing particularly on elementary school truancy.

Hook would not say what kinds of programs the city was considering, how they will be funded, or whether the city is interested in continuing to operate a youth court in some capacity. But one of their priorities, she says, is selecting organizations with multiple funding streams.

As for what will happen to 14-year-olds who get caught fighting at school come September 1? "They'll go to court," she says.

There are about 1,150 youth courts around the country, according to Jack Levine, the Program Director at the National Association of Youth Courts. It's impossible to generalize about how these programs are funded, he says, though he notes that some cities or states have set a pool of money aside for diversion programs that local Youth Courts can pull from. 

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D.C.'s Youth Court was established in 1996. Today, about 60 percent of first-time juvenile offenders are routed there. The students are referred to Youth Court by the police department, and must be between 12- and 17-years-old. Unlike a real court, Youth Court does not determine guilt or innocence. Teens who don't admit responsibility aren't eligible.

A volunteer "judge" facilitates the discussion between the plaintiff and the jury, guiding students through the decision-making process. The punishments are binding. Those who fail to follow through are pushed back into the regular criminal justice system.

Though the program has shown results, it has its critics. A 2011 New York Times article included an interview with a D.C. mother who worried the seemingly delicate sanctions issued by the youth court would have little impact on her son Travon, who was picked up for loitering in an alley with a friend who was carrying a gun:

She was very upset. She uses the cane because she has bone cancer, she said. "He came out of here saying ‘I’m not doing it.’ I need help with my son,” she said, through tears. "He needs a drug treatment program. He needs counseling. He has a mental disorder. He needs to be forced to go to school. These are children — his peers. They have no authority over his decisions. You can’t ask for that from children. This was a waste of my time.”

Later that day, Dallas talked to Travon’s mother and promised that Youth Court would make sure he was getting the services he needed; casework has become a normal part of the already overstretched staff’s job. Travon’s mother told Dallas that her son was bipolar, and that she was concerned about his behavior. “I tried to reassure her we wouldn’t just toss him out of the building,” Dallas said. "We have a way of working with kids. I felt she was projecting her feelings onto him, and that he could turn out to be a great juror and enjoy the process."

Travon’s mother felt he needed an authority figure telling him what to do. But he’s had that before — this was his first arrest, but he’s been through other parts of the system. Most of the teenagers coming through Youth Court have not lacked authority figures telling them what to do. What they haven’t had before is the chance to hear their peers disapprove of bad behavior, to see teenagers who carry that message enjoying authority and respect, and to become one of those people themselves.

That's true of soft-spoken Deasia, 14, who came in front of the court last fall. After completing the program, she was later assigned to serve as a Youth Court juror for two months. She keeps coming back. Admitting her crime to a group of people her age was embarrassing, she says, and it made her realize that getting in trouble could make it harder for her to graduate high school and train as a speech pathologist.

Many of the kids who come through Youth Court feel the same way, she says. She mentions one girl who came in because she was caught stealing clothes. "Now she always carries money around," Deasia says. "She pays for everything."

Youth Court also offers students something they get few others places: a "Know Your Rights" training on how to handle themselves when they're stopped by police officers.

One Saturday morning, a facilitator quizzes the group of students about what to say when a police officer asks you to empty your pockets. "Unlawful search and seizure," they recite, in unison.

"When you're a person of color, interactions with the police are a little different," says facilitator China Dickerson, a law student at Howard University. A lot of times, she says, the kids know what their rights are, but they don't exercise them because they don't think it will matter. "We try to tell them that even if the police are rude to you, you can still do something about it later. That can help you in court."

They also talk about impulse control and walking away from situations rather than lashing out.

"When you're 50 years-old, you're going to laugh at the things someone said about your mom at 13," Dickerson told students. "If you're 50 years-old and you're in jail, you're not gonna be laughing." The chump is not the person who walks away from a fight, she adds. "The chump is someone sitting in jail."

That theme, of offering students ways to make better decisions, is echoed by Dallas. "These are kids, not adults," she says. "We don't need to punish them, we need to help them."

Amanda Erickson is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic Cities. All posts »

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