Youthful judges set Alaska's youth courts apart, said Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe.
"Many other youth courts around the nation use youths as attorneys but adults as judges," she said during a break between 2001 State Youth Justice Conference sessions at Kenai Central High School. "It's a very promising concept that when youthful offenders are sentenced by their peers, they take the sentence and their peers' remarks very seriously."
Attorneys, judges, clerks and bailiffs from more than a dozen Alaska youth courts attended the conference Thursday through Saturday in Kenai. Members of courts from Kotzebue to Ketchikan attended sessions on topics ranging from the effects of fetal alcohol syndrome on juvenile crime and justice to national youth court trends and guidelines.
Fabe taught sessions on demeanor and ethics for judges and on gender equality in the courtroom for judges and lawyers. Speakers at Friday's opening ceremony included Fabe and two former members of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court -- 1999 Homer High School graduate Loren Absher, now studying international relations at Landegg International University in Switzerland, and Tamanika Haynes, a 2000 Kenai Central High School graduate now studying business at Arizona State University.
Haynes said youth court members have a huge impact on young offenders.
"And I'm not talking about sentencing," she said. "I'm talking about impacting them, the way you change their lives."
Chief Justice Dana Fabe of the Alaska Supreme Court responds to a student's comment during an open discussion about gender equality in the courtroom. Students attending the conference could attend nearly two dozen seminars.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The impact depends on how judges and attorneys behave, she said.
"They can either get a really good feeling about this, or they can say, oh, they're joking around, laughing or whatever," she said. "You must maintain a professional appearance."
If the defense attorney does not take the case seriously, the defendant may not either.
"Or they may think, 'He really knew what he was talking about, and he really seemed to care about what I did and what was going on. And so I'm going to go in there and I'm going to give my best try, because I know what I did was wrong, but I'm ready to make it different," she said.
There is so much negative news about youth, she said.
"But now, I'm standing here with about 200 students who are doing positive things," she said. "... By joining youth court, you are taking responsibility and using peer pressure in a positive way. Each of you is a leader."
"It's like Tamanika said. When a youth judge makes sentencing remarks, that's positive peer pressure," she said. "Its a peer saying, 'This behavior really isn't OK with me.'"
Fabe told the conference she has worked with youth court for more than 10 years, training judges and installing judges and attorneys in areas including Kenai, Homer and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Youth court gives young offenders with minor offenses a chance to straighten themselves out, she said, and 89 percent of those who complete probation through the Anchorage Youth Court never repeat their offenses.
"Kids who have taken a wrong turn can really hear their peers much more clearly than they can even adult judges," she said. "When a youth court judge says, 'You're giving all kids a bad name,' that resonates."
She said youth court judges fashion innovative sentences such as apology letters, counseling, touring a jail or watching an adult sentencing, and those discourage repeat offenses.
"It's a very effective way for young offenders to see how they don't want to end up, to see an adult offender taken away in handcuffs at the end," she said.
Youth court judges and attorneys set high standards with their own behavior, she said.
"You all know that it would be hypocritical to do something that you're sentencing someone in your courtroom for, that you're prosecuting someone for," she said.
She said youth courts also send a message that it is not just adult rules an offender has broken, but the rules of the whole community.
Absher said he has toured war-ravaged areas of Eastern Europe and seen the worst of humanity. The people everyone thinks are curing the world's ills are not, he said.
"It's up to the youth to make these changes, to fix the world and to clean up all the problems that have been left to us by generations," he said.
Youths can make a difference, he said. The efforts of Beyond Borders doctors in difficult areas of Ecuador depend on teenage translators. Absher said he recently met a Canadian his age who founded a national multiracial organization to eliminate prejudice when she was 10.
"So, pay no attention to the naysayers," he said. "Don't ever believe that you can't do it."
There are many avenues for helping, he said.
"Youth courts are effective, well-structured, necessary and an extremely rewarding way of helping," he said. "... They can really become a nexus for solving the problems of that community."
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