When stories of school shootings and reports of declining academic performance grab headlines, it is easy to forget that there still is much to laud about today's youth. One example, right here on the Kenai Peninsula, is the youth court program.
Begun during the 1996-97 school year, youth court provides an alternative forum to the traditional judicial system for juvenile offenders. In youth court, juveniles are prosecuted, defended and judged, much like in the traditional courts, but everything is done by graduate attorneys of the youth court program.
To join, students must take courses on law and pass a modified "bar exam." They perform all the court-related jobs, including bailiffs, attorneys and judges. The regular court system decides which cases have the option of referral to youth court. Generally, first-time juvenile offenders who would benefit from peer chastisement are chosen. The sentences usually involve public service. If defendants skip youth court, they get hauled into regular court.
Over the weekend, some 200 students and 50 adult advisers from around Alaska gathered in Kenai for the annual State Youth Justice Conference. The conference featured two days of workshops, activities and talks, including addresses by National Youth Court Center Director Tracy Godwin and Alaska Supreme Court Chief Justice Dana Fabe.
Youth court is a great concept that deserves all the support it can get. Studies have shown the peer justice approach to dealing with youthful offenders not only gives participants an opportunity to taste a possible career path, it also greatly reduces the number of repeat juvenile offenders.
And that's good news for everyone.
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