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Youth Court in Oklahoma

By T. Anne Mize

What to do with children and our youth is an age-old question for the Criminal Justice System. Recidivism rates, community responsibility, parenting and legal requirements all play a part in decisions that are made in this arena. While many arguments can be made for different areas and options within the Juvenile Court System, one option that has met with much success in Oklahoma is the Youth Court Program. Youth Courts have been utilized in Oklahoma for many years. Currently, such programs are being successfully utilized by communities such as Tulsa, Broken Arrow and most recently, Owasso.

Youth Court accomplishes several things for Oklahoma’s justice system. It involves our children in the legal process, teaching them valuable lessons about how our democracy works, it provides an opportunity to reach young people before they become fully involved in the Criminal Justice System, and gives attorneys within the state of Oklahoma the opportunity to give back to the community and positively affect future generations.

Youth Court is a program in which juvenile offenders are prosecuted, defended and ultimately judged by their peers. The participants in youth court consist of two groups – the offenders accepted into the Youth Court program and those that complete an eight week training session to become the “court.” “Offenders” are usually placed into the Youth Court Program by prosecuting attorneys in each respective jurisdiction. Working with social service organizations such as Youth Services, prosecutors are able to select candidates that are first time offenders or who have only committed minor criminal infractions. School Resource Officers, counselors and administrators in the local schools are also excellent resources that should be tapped when determining children that are good candidates for the program and who could ultimatley benefit from this type of early intervention.

Members of the “court” are typically recruited in the local schools when presentations are given by organizations such as Youth Services, with the participation of local attorneys involved in the program. These presentations are often times coordinated with middle school or high school law classes and are designed to inform the students about the program and give them the opportunity to get involved. The court consists of a defense attorney, a prosecuting attorney, a judge or possibly a panel of judges, a bailiff and clerk. Any “court” can be tailored to the amount of participants in the program. For example, not every youth court has a clerk and/or a bailiff. Once a student applies to the program, they are required to complete an eight week training session before participating. These sessions consists of instruction regarding ethics / confidentiality, criminal law, criminal procedure, evidence and trial practice. At the end of the eight weeks of training, a mini bar exam is held and must be passed for each participant to continue with the Youth Court program.

The benefits to the children that participate in the Youth Court program are arguably immeasurable. The program gives participants the opportunity to learn firsthand how our legal system works by directly participating in its operation. It can provide them with a better understanding of what it means to be involved in both community and school and it gives them valuable experience in public speaking and working together as part of a team that can be utilized later on in life.

“Offenders” involved in the program are often times very young or they are kids who do not have a history of making criminal mistakes. The idea at work in Youth Court is to get them involved in a more positive experience than the typical visit to juvenile court and to set them on the right path before such problems become habitual. Much has been said about the negative effects of peer pressure, but peer pressure can be used for positive results as well. By being “judged” by their peers at this early stage, many children are more likely to respond positively to their situation. Youth Court also provides for more creative sentencing than the traditional court system. Many times “offenders” are given the option to provide things such as verbal or written apologies which many retailers greatly appreciate. Some “offenders” have also been required to perform work or projects that directly benefit their “victims.” Helping out at home has even been a very successful and appreciated sentence by more than one parent. These more creative sentencing options generally work out to be positive learning experiences for all parties involved and many times, even provide the “victim” with a positive experience.

Making the benefits of the Youth Court Program possible requires the cooperation of many different entities but perhaps the most important member of the Youth Court team is the attorney advisor. Every youth court session has an attorney present to answer questions, help all parties prepare for any questioning of the defendant, victims or witnesses and to make sure various rules and the law are followed.  All classes are also taught by volunteer attorneys who spend at least an hour with the young participants during each of the eight weeks of training. Local attorneys have also been successfully utilized in the recruitment of participants in the Youth Court Program.

Youth Court provides an outstanding opportunity for the local attorney to give back to their community. It offers a perfect venue to shape young minds and build positive relationships with today’s youth. Such an experience allows for opportunities to interact with children from a variety of different backgrounds and circumstances and helps to develop excitement about the legal system.  Youth Court can deliver lifelong benefits to anyone involved, regardless of their position. From the “offenders” to the “court,” to the attorney advisors, all have the chance to participate and learn from one another.  Positive interaction with the youth of today and the mentoring of our children through programs such as Youth Court is critical in developing the leaders of tomorrow.

About the Author

T. Anne Mize graduated from the TU College of Law and College of Business in 2000. She started her legal career in the Tulsa County District Attorney’s Office. After the District Attorney’s Office, she became the city prosecutor for the City of Broken Arrow.  She now has a criminal defense practice and serves as an associate municipal judge for the City of Tulsa.

Originally published in the Oklahoma Bar Journal – Oct.10, 2009 -- Vol.80, No. 26

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