Youth Court: A National Youth Justice Movement

Youth Court: A National Youth Justice Movement
Youth Court: A National Youth Justice Movement


Policymakers gathered today to hear panelists describe a fast growing crime prevention and intervention program called Youth Court (a.k.a. Teen Court). Today’s panel includes researchers, Tracy Godwin, Director, National Youth Court Center and Dr. Jeffrey Butts, Director, Evaluation of Teen Courts Projecta law enforcement representative, John Grebert, Chief of Police, Town of Colonie Police Department and two youth representatives from the DC Time Dollar Youth Court.


Forum Brief

Youth Court is a term used to describe courts that involve young people in the sentencing of their peers, whether in school or through the juvenile justice system. Most Youth Courts are based in the juvenile justice system, but many are found in law enforcement agencies and juvenile probation departments. Schools operate about 10 percent of Youth Court programs across the country. Youth Court does not handle violent offenses or felonies. In general, the types of misdemeanor, non-violent offenses brought to Youth Court include: theft, assault, traffic violations, disorderly conduct, truancy, vandalism, alcohol/drug offenses, and criminal mischief. The age of youth involved includes, for defendants, ages 7-18 and for youth volunteers, ages 10-18. To enter the Youth Court program, the offending youth is required to plead guilty and to understand that their participation in the program is voluntary. Parental consent and participation is mandatory.

According to the panel moderator, Scott Peterson, Program Manager, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, Youth Court can be found in 45 states and the District of Columbia, and as of July 1999 an additional 16 states had Youth Court legislation pending. Because of strong volunteer support, Youth Court is among the least expensive community youth sanctions programs to operate. Although in existence for over 30 years, the movement gained momentum in the mid-90s as the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Transportation, and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services allocated funds to support its development. In addition, national groups such as the American Bar Association, American Probation and Parole Association, Street Law and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges have joined the cause to promote the concept of Youth Court to their constituencies. Currently, there are over 650 active Youth Court programs in the United States and an additional 100 in development.

Youth Courts vary in design across the nation, but there are four common models: Adult Judge Model, Youth Judge Model, Youth Tribunal Model and Peer Jury Model. The Adult Judge Model, most widely used, allows youth to serve in the roles of defense attorneys, prosecuting attorneys, jurors, court clerks and bailiffs, but places an adult volunteer (usually a professional judge or attorney) in the role of judge. The Youth Judge Model allows a student who has demonstrated a minimum level of service as a Youth Court attorney to serve as judge. The Youth Tribunal Model works without a youth jury. The case is presented by youth attorneys to a panel of up to three youth judges, who determine the appropriate sentence for the defendant, or more kindly termed in many Youth Courts—the respondent. The Peer Jury Model does not use youth in defense and prosecuting attorney roles. Instead, the facts of the case are read by a case presenter and a panel of youth jurors question the defendant/respondent directly. Most models of this type place an adult volunteer in the role of judge.

Colonie is a town 180 miles north of New York City with a population of 83,000. “The Youth Court system fits well into the way the police department works,” Chief John Grebert explains. “The town was deploying its resources to serve the community, but was finding that this wasn’t a long term way to solve the problems of juvenile delinquency. Youth Court is a natural fit and provides a solution,” The police department became the main referral agency for most cases that arrive at Youth Court in Colonie. “It used to be, says Grebert, “that more confrontational contact with youth happened, but they [the police] now have a more productive role with youth.” According to Chief Grebert, law enforcement sees more direct results from Youth Court because of the early intervention. They also feel that the strongest deterrent to inappropriate behavior is peer pressure. Grebert said it is very important not to discount the influence of shame when holding youth accountable for their actions. “When you arrive in Youth Court everyone knows about it,” says the Chief, “and this ends up being a deterrent to future crime.”

Looking to the other benefits of Youth Court, Chief Grebert talks about the victims, the respondents and the community. “Victims are often made whole through this process and young people get a chance to show how they can handle and demonstrate responsibility.” The program is low cost because volunteers run it. The community benefits through the extra community service received through sentencing. The youth that commit crimes receive a community service sentence that opens up opportunities for them. Through their sentence, they get a chance to give back to the community, build working relationships, and attain skills and references for future employment. Other sentencing options may include: restitution, counseling, curfews (limited home restrictions), chores at home, apology to parents, jail tours and/or a presentation to a small group. Chief Grebert indicated that youth offenses, in Colonie, have declined recently in part due to the presence of Youth Court.

According to researcher Dr. Jeffery Butts, who has been collecting data on teen and youth courts for one year, no comprehensive evaluation data has been reported to date, but empirical data through testimonials, collected articles and police reports would suggest that this movement has made a substantial, positive impact on the youth and adult volunteers involved with the Youth Court system. It is evident, suggests Butts, that the Youth Court system, by allowing young people to participate in this capacity, has given them a voice. The researcher recounts the words of an attorney who serves as a Youth Court volunteer, “We need to not think of Youth Court only as a way to solve crime in communities. It’s youth development–youth empowerment.” However, Dr. Butts indicated that for Youth Court to survive as a strategy to reduce juvenile offenses, there must be proof it results in fewer instances of crime and reduced recidivism.

The two youth on the panel briefly describe their experience and impact that Youth Court has had on them. One of the youths is involved with the Court as a volunteer and describes community service hours as allowing the respondent to give back to the community they harmed, making them stakeholders in the community. The other has “seen it from both sides” as a respondent and volunteer. As a result of his experience, this youth has become more involved with extra curricular activities at school.

Panelist Tracy Godwin describes the role of the National Youth Court Center as being a central point of contact that maintains a searchable database for assistance in research, coordinates and delivers training seminars, offers technical assistance and conferences on the development of Teen/Youth Court, and develops national guidelines for the Youth Court program. The Center is assembling an advisory committee, called the National Youth Court Alliance to develop National Youth Court Guidelines and a Youth Volunteer Training Package, and publish a resource compendium. The Center has formed a partnership with four federal agencies (DOJ, DOT, USDE, DHHS) to continue support for the program; the American Bar Association to help develop the volunteer training initiative; Street Law, Inc. to develop community service education workshop modules; and Phi Alpha Delta to assist with membership volunteerism.

A strong suggestion was brought to light by John Dortch, Director of DC Time Dollar Youth Court, who mentioned that training in sensitivity is needed. Dortch said that many times the court is a highly emotionally charged environment. “You have parents breaking down and crying, [and] you have fathers and sons having meaningful dialog for the first time ever.” This suggestion was applauded.

There is an increasing awareness that juvenile crime in our country needs a collaborative response from the government and the community. Youth Court programs offer a way to engage the community in a partnership with the juvenile justice system to respond to juvenile crime by increasing the awareness of delinquency issues on a local level and by mobilizing community members and youth to take an active role in addressing the problem.

This information was reported by Sarah S. Pearson from an American Youth Policy Forum held on January 28, 2000 on Capitol Hill.

Dr. Jeffrey A. Butts


Evaluation of Teen Courts Project

2100 M Street, NW

Washington, DC 20037



John Dortch

Youth Court Director

Time Dollar Institute

5500 39th Street, NW

Washington, DC 2015




Tracy Godwin

Research Associate

American Probation and Parole Association

The Council of State Governments

Center for Law and Justice

2760 Research Park Drive

P.O. Box 11910

Lexington, KY 40578-1910



John P. Grebert

Chief of Police

Town of Colonie Police Department

312 Wolf Road

Latham, NY 12110



Scott Peterson

Program Manager, Youth Court

Training and Technical Assistance Division

Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention

800 K Street, NW

Washington, DC 20531



The American Youth Policy Forum (AYPF), a nonprofit, nonpartisan professional development organization based in Washington, DC, provides learning opportunities for policy leaders, practitioners, and researchers working on youth and education issues at the national, state, and local levels. AYPF events and publications are made possible by contributions from philanthropic foundations. For a complete list, click here.