At a hearing Tuesday sponsored by City Councilman Curtis Jones Jr., Council examined how youth courts could reduce juvenile incarceration, recidivism rates, school violence and bullying. Youth courts resemble typical courtrooms and are alternative juvenile justice or school-based disciplinary systems, in which students are trained to hold hearings and sentence their peers for minor offenses like truancy or verbal disputes.
"If you can teach a healthy respect for peer justice, you then create a person who respects himself and others his age and just maybe they may listen to adults and authorities," Jones said. "And at the conclusion of their teen age, become citizens who respect the justice system."
Experts and city officials praised youth courts as a model that would keep youths out of the justice system while teaching them leadership skills. Some of the youths that participate in the programs wind up seeking a career in the court system.
Family Court Judge Kevin Dougherty said that punishment often nudges youths toward lives in which they end up in adult court and that teen courts can effectively steer kids in the right direction.
Youth courts were first introduced to Philadelphia schools by the Norris Square Neighborhood Project in 1999 and in 2004 the school district included Teen Court as an approved sanction for minor offenses, said Martin Nock, president and CEO of Communities in Schools of Philadelphia Inc. Youth courts operate in 49 states and the District of Columbia with more than 1,050 programs. Only 15 are in Pennsylvania.
Jones said he hopes to explore ways to expand youth courts, adding that the costs of such programs is substantially lower than the costs of incarceration. n
Contact Jan Ransom at 215-854-5218 or Ransomj@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @Jan_Ransom.