Jury of Peers

P icture a courtroom in New Haven—an elegant, wood-paneled room with high ceilings and gilded trim. The judge’s bench is elevated above the carpeted floor. The jury is seated in their box to the side in leather-upholstered chairs. On each of the attorneys’ tables are a box of tissues, a pitcher of water, a few plastic cups.

Now picture the jury box and the attorneys’ seats occupied by teenagers. This is Project Youth Court, part of an international movement started by Global Youth Justice, Inc. in which more than 1,800 communities on five continents “give their youth a 2nd and even 3rd chance [after] committing minor crimes, offenses and violations,” its website explains.

New Haven’s Project Youth Court was founded in 2014 by a group of Yale students including Andrew Grass, who now serves as chair of the Board of Directors, and it heard its first case in 2015. To date, more than 100 youthful offenders have been tried not in criminal court but rather here, before a jury of their peers—other young people—using the principles of restorative justice to help them come to terms with the harm they’ve done and accept the consequences of their actions. “I feel very honored to work with them and to see what they do for each other,” says Jane Michaud, executive director, “and I think it has far more meaningful and lasting effects for their peers than what we do traditionally [in the legal system].”

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While Michaud is present behind the scenes at every week’s Project Youth Court session, the only adult with a courtroom role is one of 30 local attorneys who volunteer their time to adjudicate the cases, heard every Tuesday evening after regular business hours in the federal courthouse at 141 Church Street across from the Green.

On a Tuesday in February, teens arrived at the front door of the courthouse, made their way through security and signed in with administrative assistant Berta Holmes. They were joined by two interns from the University of New Haven and a few adults serving in supervisory roles. Teenaged “attorneys” had received a confidential case summary a few days before and now spent about 30 minutes conferring with their client, who had already pleaded guilty to a charge of larceny. The court’s role is not to determine guilt or innocence. Instead, it determines consequences and gives the client—Project Youth Court’s preferred term—an opportunity to formally come to terms with their actions. The “community” would be represented by its own attorneys, who also took this time to confer. Meanwhile, six students arrived to sit on the jury, a smaller number than usual due to a school vacation.

At five o’clock, Scott Jones, a New Haven senior assistant public defender and a member of the Project Youth Court board, took the bench, and the teenaged bailiff asked everyone in the courtroom to rise. As in any court, oaths were sworn and instructions given. Jones reminded the jury that the restorative contract they would create should be based solely on the evidence to be heard that evening.

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Following opening statements, the client was called as a witness by his attorneys and sworn in by the bailiff before taking the stand. Community representatives followed up with a cross-examination. In addition to questions about the incident itself, they wanted to know: Who do you think was harmed by your actions? Have you taken any steps to show remorse for your actions? Jones, too, had some questions. “Do you think it’s possible to learn from a mistake?” he asked.

One additional witness was called and questioned, then final statements were made. The entire proceeding took less than an hour. Then the jury left for deliberations, accompanied by an adult volunteer, Yale undergraduate Jaster Francis, whose job it was to “make sure everyone is respecting the rules… and make sure everyone is participating.” While the jury was out, Jones stepped down to praise the work of the young attorneys, aged 15 to 17, and give them some feedback for future cases.

Project Youth Court operates on the principles of restorative justice, a term that first gained currency in North American legal cases in the 1970s, though it’s based on the age-old judicial systems of native peoples in the Americas and New Zealand. Typical contracts call for community service hours and other actions that may “repay” the community for harm done. Often, clients are also assigned a certain number of cases for which they, too, must sit on the jury, giving them the opportunity to participate in the process of restorative justice for others. Another common outcome, Michaud says, is the assignment of a “Project Youth Court buddy,” a peer who will check in on them, encourage them and help them with ongoing challenges they may be facing.

“If they take it seriously, I think there’s a lot to be gained, and it could redirect someone,” Jones said while we waited for the jury’s decision. He added that it’s important for the consequences to be meaningful. The idea is not to just take “a slap on the wrist and go your way, but also to gain some insight…”

According to a study of youth courts funded by the Department of Justice and conducted by George Washington University, the value of youth courts includes lowering court costs, bringing youthful offenders into contact with positive peer role models and giving other youth participating in the program a chance to learn about the justice system. In some cases, lower rates of recidivism have been found for clients who went through youth court than those who went through the criminal justice system. But Project Youth Court isn’t appropriate for every case. Offenses must be misdemeanors, such as theft, trespassing or vandalism. Felonies and motor vehicle cases are ineligible. In addition, clients are usually—though not always—first-time offenders.

After about 20 minutes of deliberation, the jury returned to deliver its confidential decision, and by 6:45 court was adjourned for the evening. Michaud conferred with the client’s family as volunteers headed out for the evening. Many of them would be back the following week, when two cases were on the docket, slated to run simultaneously in two courtrooms.

Referrals to Project Youth Court come from the courts, police and some New Haven schools, and participation is voluntary. Sometimes the program functions as a preventative for tougher consequences like school suspensions, expulsions and arrests, Michaud says. The process can take more time, over the course of several months, than an ordinary court proceeding.

“But you know what? Significant change takes time,” she says. “If you really want lasting, meaningful change, it will take time.”

Project Youth Court
Richard C. Lee United States Courthouse – 141 Church St, New Haven (map)
jmichaud@projectyouthcourt.org
www.projectyouthcourt.org

Written by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 1, featuring Berta Holmes (right) with Project Youth Court interns, photographed by Kathy Leonard Czepiel. Image 2, of Richard C. Lee United States Courthouse, photographed by Dan Mims.

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About Kathy Leonard Czepiel

View all posts by Kathy Leonard Czepiel
Kathy Leonard Czepiel is Daily Nutmeg’s associate editor. She’s also a fiction writer, writing teacher and book club troubleshooter. Join her this month on Goodreads for a guided winter reading of Mary Shelley’s classic novel Frankenstein.

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