Teenage "judges" could soon be presiding over courts dealing with their wayward peers' crimes. Officials hope the US-inspired idea will cut offending. Are they right?
By Duncan Walker
BBC News Online Magazine
For a 16-year-old high school student, Christian Branch has a lot more to worry about than just getting his homework done.
On top of his studies there's the small matter of taking turns to act as judge, attorney or juror in a youth court passing sentence on young offenders in a tough New York borough.
Dealing with everything from truancy, to graffiti, vandalism and possession of weapons, the court uses peer pressure and punishments to make offenders mend their ways.
So influential is the idea that it has been extended to hundreds of other towns across the US, and could soon be on its way to the UK.
Serious consideration is being given to the possibility of a similar scheme at Britain's first community justice centre, which is due to open in Liverpool later this year and will be rolled out across the country if successful.
'Give something back'
Two nights a week Christian and the other young law makers gather at Red Hook Youth Court, Brooklyn, to deal with the "minor offences" of other children, aged 10 to 16.
Red Hook Youth Court meets two nights a week
All those appearing have admitted to their crime, so the cases are dealt with in just 15 to 45 minutes; the emphasis placed firmly on making the perpetrator see the error of their ways, rather than proving guilt.
"What we have to say is 'I'm glad you know that what you have done is wrong, and it's time to give something back to your community'," says Christian, who is considering studying law.
The court is deliberately non-confrontational. One young court member acts as the youth advocate, putting the case of the guilty party, while another puts the community's point of view.
The court can then decide to hand down a sentence, which could be anything from community service at a hospital, to writing an essay about their crime, or seeing a social worker for help drawing up a life plan.
Even though it can't force the youths to complete their punishments, nine out of 10 do.
"We're talking to them and they think 'it really does impact my neighbourhood when I jump a turnstile or steal a pack of gum'," says Christian. "They start thinking that what they do may seem little to them, but it really affects their community."
There is also the small matter that those who complete the order have the crime struck from their record. Those who don't may have the mark against them until they are 18 and can be re-arrested by police and taken to family court at any time.
If the idea gets going in Merseyside, young court members won't have such extensive powers.
The Department for Constitutional Affairs is also keen to avoid attaching such legalese as "judge", "juror", or even "court" to its embryonic version of the scheme, which it prefers to see as mediation.
But it is interested in using peer pressure as a means of stating the community's annoyance with those responsible for anti-social behaviour.
"It's aimed at people who behaved badly but have not been charged with an offence," says a DCA spokesman. "It could be litter dropping, noise pollution or graffiti."
Young members could tell those before it why the community is annoyed and suggest ways to move forward, perhaps by starting a hobby or seeking help if they have a problem.
Whether the idea is introduced depends on the support of the north Liverpool community, to which the prototype court is designed to respond.
UK officials believe that should local people approve, the panels will need to include not just the area's best students, but also those who have been on the wrong side of the law themselves.
The youth court idea could be adopted for north Liverpool
Such a policy has been central to the success of Red Hook, which started in 1998, where young offenders appearing before the court are often asked if they would like to become a member themselves.
"We don't get a bunch of A-plus students, we have kids going through all kinds of struggles, because the young people need to represent the young people they see," says Red Hook project director James Brodick.
He says that in an area where the rich and poor live side by side and many people struggle to make ends meet, or bring up children by themselves, understanding goes a long way.
Such problems explain that while most of those appearing before the court take it seriously, only four out of 10 summoned bother to appear in the first place, he says.
Unperturbed, Mr Brodick says many of those who don't show will have been scared into changing their ways simply by getting a phone call from the court, while those who aren't will soon be before an adult court anyway.
The result, he says, is clear to see: "By dealing with these low level quality of life offences, people feel better about where they live."
While there is still a long way to go before the effects of such a scheme are seen in Liverpool, let alone the rest of the UK, those in Red Hook are proud that their work has been noticed and keen that others benefit from their success.
For Christian, the court gives him the chance to give something back to his neighbourhood and, importantly, it also "turns round the idea that all the youths in the community are bad".
Emboldened by 18 months without a murder in Red Hook, after years of multiple homicides, his boss firmly believes the court has helped play its part in New York's fight against crime.
"The perception about crime in Red Hook has changed dramatically," says Mr Brodick.
"When I first came to the area you could not get a taxi to come here, now there's businesses popping up all over the place."
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
This is a unique concept and a great idea. If it works with one in 10 offenders it is worth the effort. Do it, and study what happens over time. This can work for many kids, and it will relieve the court to deal with the more hardcore offenders that have already used their "get out of jail free" cards and their chances.
Chris Grant, Sacramento USA
I think you will find that it is largely peer pressure that causes these kinds of minor offences. I'm 15 and I think it is more important for someone to decide for themselves whether what they did was wrong than to be pressurised by others to believe that it was.
David Rogers, UK
While peer pressure is a very strong influence on children's behaviour, formalising it is really just a distraction. What is needed is fundamental change in attitudes, making 'right' the dominant value, as well as improved facilities and a sense of ownership in a community. A good example is drink driving: it took many years, but now the general attitude has turned against drink-drivers.
John B, Gloucester, UK
This idea sounds really great, until I came to the bit "young court members will not have such extensive powers". So typical of our country - water down everything until it is a waste of time and effort.
Michael Mciver, England
No doubt by the time the new scheme has been in and out of various committees, edited, refined, amended, revised, reworded, and generally moulded to suit those with the real power in this country, it will be a pale shadow of its former self and no good to man nor beast.
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