Participatory Youth: Juvenile Courts

Juvenile delinquency can be a large contributing factor toward community dissent. Youth offenders of the law, committing relatively mild crimes, are often sentenced to punishments extreme for their age group. This has led in the past to further delinquency-an increase in severity of offenses resulting from the increase in exposure to criminal life while experiencing the labyrinth of the judicial system. Youth witness what they are expected to become, and our judicial system creates a self-fulfilling prophecy by exposing them to this life. Consequentially, the community is forced to pick of the slack. Court cost are unnecessarily high, paying for re-offenders who would have otherwise stayed out of the system, and potential contributing members of society are lost to criminal life.
The relative failure of the youth court system poses an ethical question: are current experts in the judicial system willing to continue exposing criminal youth to worse outcomes than they would otherwise have encountered? Also, in a democracy, what responsibility do they have to these young people to incorporate them into deciding their own fate? Because these teenagers are criminals, in a democracy a significant number of their rights are usually stripped of them; however, when the system in place is causing more harm than good, a new solution must be instated. Ethically, experts in the judicial system have a responsibility to those they affect to subject them to the best outcome for society. Not only must they be sure their decisions are resulting in bettering society, but when an injustice is brought to light, and they have the power to act, they must. As proven in many studies, and as previously state, youth criminals at times are subject to more criminal activity when they enter the current court system.
Leaders and experts in the judicial system have caught onto these trends and have taken action to limit juvenile delinquents’ exposure to more intense criminal activity. Youth courts have been created across the country, composed of peers creating sentences for their peers’ minor infractions and volunteering to assume different roles within the judicial process. These courts have proven to be effective, with six-month recidivism rates ranging from six to nine percent (Youth). The system has sustained itself since 1994, effectively incorporating youth into their own judicial affairs.
Tina Rosenberg, in her article in the New York Times, states the underlying motivation for the courts: “Teen courts are an expression of the idea that people do better when they contribute to the solution of their own problems,” (Rosenberg). This process of peer review has been an effective solution to minor infractions of the law and preventing further criminal activity directly because youth have agency in deciding their fate within the judicial system. This agency translates into the enfranchisement of our otherwise disenfranchised criminal youth; they now have the opportunity to participate in the affairs of their society. Moreover, they have the opportunity to participate in the affairs that directly affect them. Their explicit participation in the judicial process requires them to be invested in the outcomes of their peers. They have a stake in what happens to not only themselves, but to other youth criminals. Juvenile delinquents undergoing this process find themselves a respected resource, are forced to embrace responsibility, and as a result become agents of their own fate.
Frank Fischer discusses a similar process in chapters eight and nine of Citizens, Experts, and the Environment. He uses the example of epidemiology and participatory research to illustrate the empowerment of citizens when they are engaged in the research process (Fischer). Similarly in youth courts, teenage offenders are incorporated into the judicial process. The result is the same as in Fischer’s example: the use of youth, or more broadly citizen, knowledge engages the youth and makes him an expert. Once fully engaged, youth find their opinion respected and, as stated earlier, a resource to the process, an expert citizen.
Contrast this agency with the original juvenile court system. Originally judicial courts were comprised of experienced judges, bailiffs, jurors, all experts in their respective fields determining the outcome of citizens entering their courtrooms. These citizens, having committed criminal acts, were at the hands of “higher ranking” citizens who determined their fate. After the crime was committed, the citizen’s agency was stripped, and all opportunity to contribute to society removed. This system may be deemed appropriate for some criminal activity; however, when dealing with minor judicial wrongs, this extremity is ineffective.
In this new youth court system, criminal minors are used as a resource. Their contributions to the courtroom provide a different, more direct perspective of possibly effective solutions to the issues. The result is a more intimate judicial environment, very much in contrast to the previous solution of lumping every judicial infraction into the same category. The criminal youth are seen as tools in a process of asset-based community development. Their direct linkage to the crimes along with their experience of knowing “what works” as a sentence contributes to the success of the juvenile court.
Youth delinquents only are permitted this opportunity for participation in the judicial system because the previous experts have abdicated their agency to them. Still witnesses and supervisors, experts in the judicial system have taken a back seat in the process. Combining this abdication of agency with the assets provided by the delinquent youth results in a new dynamic within the juvenile court system. Youth are respected experts, working with judicial workers who assist their enfranchisement within the system. This new dynamic, incorporating more equality and respect for each contributor’s assets, has created a more successful youth court.
Ethically, allowing youth offenders to become subject to more criminal activity is unacceptable. Judicial experts have recognized this fact and taken action to enfranchise teen criminals through a new judicial process. This process give teens a stake in their own outcomes, incorporating them into the system, and giving them a voice and responsibility. The incorporation of youth knowledge with judicial knowledge has resulted in a new process proven to fulfill its original intent: to keep criminals off the streets. The dynamic incorporation of expert and local knowledge has succeeded in youth courts, culminating in a beautiful example of democracy and enfranchisement of citizens.

Fischer, Frank. Citizens, Experts, and the Environment: the Politics of Local Knowledge. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2000. Print.
Rosenberg, Tina. “For Teen Offenders, a Jury of Their Peers –” Opinion – Opinionator – NYTimes, 13 Oct. 2011. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. .
Youth Court. Web. 16 Oct. 2011. .


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