Daniel Rubin: Chester High School's Youth Court puts students before juries of their peers

At Youth Court, advocate Brian Foster (left) and respondent Saleeh Raheem listen to jurors (from right) Kareem Greenwood, Tiara DeVore, and Nasir Young.
At Youth Court, advocate Brian Foster (left) and respondent Saleeh Raheem listen to jurors (from right) Kareem Greenwood, Tiara DeVore, and Nasir Young.
Posted: February 28, 2011

The judge is too young to buy a drink. The bailiff's working on his first mustache. One juror had track practice, so he left early. Another forgot to silence his cell-phone ring, so he was ordered out of the room.

Three times a week, in a Spartan linoleum and canary-yellow room at Chester High School, Youth Court opens for business. It offers an unusual system of jurisprudence: Defendants must first acknowledge their guilt. They come to court for sentencing.

But talk about getting a jury of your peers.

Students rotate all the roles except defendant - judge, jurors, bailiff, and advocates - yet no one can say what happens here is make-believe. What I watched Thursday after school was real life itself.

Alton Briscoe, 18, strides to the bench, donated black robe worn over his ROTC camouflages, and bailiff David Dorsey orders everyone to their feet.

"Chester High Youth Court is now in session," the bailiff booms.

The judge lays down the law. "No gum chewing, smoking, tobacco chewing, eating, or drinking," Briscoe says from memory. "No cameras, recording devices, audible beepers, or cell phones are allowed. No laughing, talking, or other inappropriate behavior is permitted when court is session."

The bailiff reads the charge: class cutting.

Class cutting and hall walking are the most frequent offenses adjudicated here.

"That's what some students specialize in," notes Darrell Jones, a Youth Court coordinator and the head of the Chester NAACP, who sits at a back desk.

The respondent is Saleeh Raheem - tall, thin, and quiet, a tattoo visible through his open-necked shirt. The 18-year-old junior declines to make a statement, so his advocate, Brian Foster, begins.

"I'm not trying to defend an innocent man, because we all know he was guilty of class cutting," he says. The defender asks for fairness and help.

Raheem left school early one day, missing English class because he'd been evicted from his home and had to move to another place.

The jury - two young men and two young women - have questions. They want to know how his grades are ("not good right now"), whether he has a job (no), whether he has had a previous infraction (yes - not dressing appropriately).

They ask if he'd benefit from tutoring.

"Probably, but I don't have the time right now," he replies.

He says he'd rather be going to an alternative school to learn to be a computer technician. His advocate calls for a sidebar conference, and the judge, jury, and advocate step into the hall for three minutes.

Afterward, the questioning continues more sharply. The jurors want to know whether he has time to work with a tutor after school. Raheem says that might be difficult.

The advocate makes a brief closing argument, then the jury deliberates.

The Chester program has been running four years. Greg Volz, a Media public-interest lawyer, helped bring it to the poor, urban high school, fueled by a grant from the Stoneleigh Foundation.

"Some of these kids are so happy for someone to be listening to them," he says. "They own this court. It's theirs."

While many people see such courts as a judicial alternative, Volz sees it as a youth-development program.

Indeed, the judge is thinking about college and law school. And juror Nasir Young wants to teach history once he graduates.

Young is captain of the school track team and has gotten into Howard University, his first choice. He's waiting to find out if he can afford to go.

He leads the deliberations when the jury hashes over the case, and his questions reveal someone seeking to help the respondent, not punish him.

"He kept saying he wanted to go to alternative school. Can we do anything about that?" Young asks the judge. The answer: Not really.

"Obviously his grades are lacking," Young continues. "Regardless of whether he has time, I think he needs tutoring. I think he should apologize to the teacher for not informing him of his whereabouts. He needs to ask what work he needs to make up."

A half-hour after the case began, the jury has reached its verdict.

Everyone stands.

Raheem looks straight ahead, hands folded, as foreman Kareem Greenwood delivers the news:

The respondent must write an apology to the teacher. After-school tutoring is in order. And Raheem must serve six hours on the jury so he better understands the consequences of his actions.

"I wanted him to learn a lesson," Young explains later that day, "but I didn't want to punish him.

I ask what he's taking away from his 21/2 years in Youth Court. "It helps you think logically, how to fix a situation, resolve a problem. I think it helps you think outside the box."

Contact Daniel Rubin at 215-854-5917 or drubin@phillynews.com.

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