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Jon Premosch / BuzzFeed

Welcome To Teen Court

At legally authorized teen courts across the country, teens decide the real-life fate of other teens who’ve committed low-level offenses. The weirdest part? It seems to work — so why aren't there more of them?

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One day after school last December, 15-year-old Michael took the stand in a Brooklyn courtroom. His crime: jumping a subway turnstile instead of paying for the $2.50 ride, classified as the most serious level of misdemeanor in New York.

“How are you feeling today?” the jury foreman asked him.

“Nervous,” Michael said. (His name has been changed since he is a minor.) He had walked in with a scowl, but now looked like he was about to cry.

The New York Police Department takes turnstile jumping very seriously. More than 37,000 people received incarceration time for fare evasion from 2008 to the first half of 2014, according to state data; 1,802 of them were minors.

If Michael didn’t take care of his ticket before his next birthday, he could have even become one of the nearly 50,000 16- and 17-year-olds who end up in the state’s criminal courts every year, most of whom are charged with nonviolent crimes — New York is one of only two states where the age of adult criminal responsibility is 16. The overwhelming majority of youths sentenced to incarceration, 80%, are black and Latino.

But adults wouldn’t decide Michael’s fate that afternoon. Instead of giving him a ticket, the police officer who caught Michael trying to sneak into the subway sent him to teen court, which is run for and by teenagers.

The judge Michael faced was a teen. The jury members were teens. His “youth advocate” defender, as well as the “community advocate” who played a vaguely prosecutorial role, were teens as well.

“We are here to help you, not to judge you,” the 17-year-old foreperson reassured Michael before the questioning began.

Teen court, also called youth or peer court, may sound like the premise of a sitcom, but there are more than 1,000 youth court programs in 49 states and the District of Columbia, according to the National Association of Youth Courts, and some states have even passed teen court-related legislation.

Teen courts are a diversion program, not a court of law, and the majority don’t adjudicate guilt or innocence the way real courts do. Instead, the goal is to determine a fair sentence for first offenders who have admitted guilt for low-level offenses rather than throwing them to the mercy of the criminal justice system. Advocates also believe teens can get through to other teens in a way out-of-touch adults can not. Some jury members are former "respondents" who went through the teen court system themselves.

“Here we treat respondents as people who have stories to tell that go beyond the mistake they made,” said Jah-Neyce, a 17-year-old member of the Red Hook Youth Court. “In a regular court, the judge doesn’t really care who you are.”

Teen court hasn't been around very long — 20 years ago, there were only 78 in operation, according to the National Youth Court Database — although some say its roots stem back to the late 19th century, when social welfare leader William Reuben George founded the George Junior Republic in Freeville, New York, which promoted youthful self-government. His son-in-law may have founded the first youth court in the 1960s.

Police, probation officers, schools, district attorney’s offices, or family and criminal courts may refer minors to teen court who have already confessed to low-level crimes ranging from marijuana possession to shoplifting to assault. The jury attempts to target the root cause of an offender’s actions, after which they might be referred to social services, face community service, attend mandated motivational group counseling, or write a personal essay or public apology.

Advocates say positive peer pressure is more cost-effective than scaring nonviolent offenders straight. It costs about $500 to send a kid to teen court compared to the roughly $5,500 cost per child of appearing in juvenile court, said Jack Levine, program director of the National Association of Youth Courts.

But not everyone is so convinced that it’s a great idea.

Some critics are horrified at the prospect of going so easy on crime. “This scheme combines the worst of soft sentencing and silly gimmicks,” Centre for Crime Prevention’s Peter Cuthbertson told the Daily Mail last summer after a peer court opened in West Yorkshire, England. Those on the other side of the spectrum are concerned by a study and anecdotal evidence that suggested police might refer some kids to teen court who would have otherwise simply been sent home with a stern lecture.

Others are just skeptical that the program actually prevents reoffending. Every teen court is different — some employ adults judges, while peers preside over others, and there’s a vast variation in referral sources — so it’s difficult to evaluate their effectiveness. Teen court participation also typically requires a formal or informal admission of guilt, which means it’s hard to compare it to the traditional court system. And, since teen court is designed for first-time offenders with low-level offenses, recidivism rates are low to begin with.

The lack of concrete data may be the reason why few people know teen courts exist — municipalities strapped for cash aren’t typically excited to invest in something that isn’t proven to work.

Though teen courts seem popular with some legal experts — the former New York State chief judge launched a fund to provide financial support and has unsuccessfully lobbied for legislation — funding is scarce. Most courts in New York are funded by local government, although they can also receive money from the state and federal government, private donors, and local school districts and foundations. Although the majority of youth courts in New York state have an annual operating budget of $50,000 or less, New York’s youth courts are barely scraping by, their employees say.

“People love the idea of youth court,” said Beth Broderick, project director of the Staten Island Youth Justice Center, which hosts the borough’s youth court, “but they don’t seem to want to pay for it.”

But some research is promising. An Urban Institute study of four courts found that those who attended teen court had less than half the one-year recidivism rate of those who passed through the juvenile justice system. Advocates compare that to extensive research that shows that imprisoning young offenders actually increases their odds of committing more serious crimes and returning to prison while also making them less likely to graduate from high school.

“Teens take risks without understanding the long-term consequences,” said Dory Hack, director of Youth Justice Capacity Building at the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that works closely with the New York State Unified Court System. “We strongly feel that youth court is a better way to respond to many minor offenses than the criminal system. We want them to have a positive experience and feel heard.”

In New York City’s youth courts, where teen members are paid a small monthly stipend after undergoing intensive training and hear cases twice a week, annual compliance rates average 93%, Hack said.

There are more than 80 youth courts in New York State (called "youth" because some respondents are as young as 10 years old, although members are 14-18). The Center for Court Innovation operates five youth courts in New York City and one in Newark, New Jersey. In 2013, the Red Hook Youth Court heard 146 cases, most for larceny, truancy, and assault. The Staten Island Youth Court heard 170, many for shoplifting, thanks to the borough’s most popular teen hangout: the mall.

For New Yorkers 16 and older, the alternative to youth court isn’t necessarily jail time, but the “escalation of a case through the system,” Hack said. In other words, if a kid like Michael doesn’t show up to court, or is later charged with another offense, he might face increasingly serious consequences. By housing the courts in community centers, the Center for Court Innovation hopes to connect at-risk kids who come to youth court with other services they might need close to home. Some sessions take place in real-life courtrooms, like the youth court at Youth and Community Programs at the Red Hook Community Justice Center, which was founded as the nation's first multi-jurisdictional community court in 2000, while others, like Staten Island’s, are conducted in repurposed office rooms.

“There’s an air of legitimacy because of what the kids bring to it,” said Broderick, adding that many respondents and their families are “really stressed” by a traditional courtroom setting.

During youth court sessions in Staten Island and Red Hook, teen respondents walked in looking nervous or defensive — most said they had never heard of youth court before, and had no idea what to expect — but quickly opened up once they realized the jury was on their side.

After everyone in the room cited a crucial confidentiality oath — every so often, a jury member and a respondent run into each other in their high school cafeteria — the cases began. One 11th-grader, clad in sequined Uggs, said that her friend had convinced her to shoplift a bag from H&M and that she struggled with peer pressure. The court assigned her an essay on that topic, along with three hours of community service and a behavior workshop. A pair of sisters who were reported truant explained in separate sessions that their mother had taken them to McDonald’s for breakfast because they had a half-day at school. In many states, truancy charges can carry serious offenses for both kids and their parents, but the court decided that the sisters hadn’t done anything wrong and let them go without any sanctions.

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Michael, the turnstile jumper, was questioned more relentlessly.

First, the community advocate assigned to his case (the kids switch positions regularly) argued that the city loses out on funding thanks to fare evasion, and that younger kids might copy Michael’s actions and get a ticket or face actual jail time. Michael’s advocate, who had met with Michael before the hearing to get to know him better, said he possessed “a multiple of positive attributes,” had a good relationship with his family and friends, and had never dealt with the police before. Plus, Michael “liked to play handball after school.”

The jury then peppered Michael with questions, speaking as quickly as only teens can.

Did Michael have money with him? (No.) Did he ask anyone, say, in his school office, to borrow some before deciding to jump the turnstile? (No.) Had he ever been suspended? (Yes, twice; once for hitting a teacher, but that was in fifth grade.) Did he feel like anyone deserved an apology? (Yes: the MTA.) Who was his role model? (Biggie Smalls, which elicited some hidden grins from the otherwise professional jury). What were his future goals? (College, although he only said so after some encouragement from the jury.) How would his experience in youth court get in the way of them?

In a closing statement, the community advocate said Michael “lacked motivation and spoke too quickly.”

But his advocate defended him.

“He stated if given the chance he would apologize to the MTA, he does not skip school anymore, and he has learned not to jump the turnstile,” he said before thanking Michael for participating.

“We know how hard it is to admit to one’s fault in front of his peers.”

The jury left the room to deliberate. Some members felt that Michael had learned his lesson, but others thought he was just saying what they wanted to hear.

“He has future goals!” one teenager said in Michael’s defense.

“Well, only after you told him what they should be,” said another. “You had to prompt him.”

Ultimately, the jury assigned Michael a group counseling course, since they felt he needed a group for motivation’s sake, and a letter of apology to the MTA.

Michael and his mother then met with a youth court staffer so she could explain how the center would help him finish his sanctions in time — and that if he didn’t show up, it could stay on his permanent record, at least until he turned 18. (Most jurisdictions send kids who don’t complete their sanctions in time back to the traditional juvenile justice system.) Michael’s mother said she didn’t speak English or have an email account; the staffer told her not to worry.

“The goal isn’t to punish,” a 15-year-old jury member named Marcos said. “But if we see a pattern, we want to help kids fix it up. We all want what’s best for them.”

Asana, 17, who judged Michael’s case, used to think that “every man behind bars is a criminal,” she said. Then, she listened to an elementary schooler explain why he stole an iPhone. He told the court that he only did it because an older group of boys had threatened his family. The experience made Asana cry.

“It made me think of my brothers and sisters,” she said. “Now I’m not so biased.”

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Katie Baker is an investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in London.

Contact Katie J.M. Baker at katie.baker@buzzfeed.com.

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