Youth courts look for funding

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2003

JUNEAU (AP) Alaska's youth courts, in which teenage volunteers dispense justice to about 900 young offenders a year, aren't funded by the state.

The 15 or so youth courts across the state have relied on a mix of federal grants and support from municipalities, corporations and Native organizations, as well as car washes and other fund-raisers.

But the federal grant the program relies on that passes through the state Division of Juvenile Justice is drying up, and youth courts are looking for regular state funding to replace at least part of that.

The courts are staffed by amateur teenage attorneys and judges, and handle first-time youthful offenders who have committed crimes such as underage drinking, vandalism and shoplifting. Punishments usually include restitution and community work service.

''The reason it's such invaluable help to us is that these kids are young kids, so it's real important what impression they get from the system,'' said Juneau District Judge Peter Froehlich. ''How the case is handled affects them more than if they were older and more mature.''

The youth courts' funding pays for adult coordinators, equipment and supplies, and travel to state and national conferences.

Krista Scully, executive director of United Youth Courts of Alaska, said the federal grant has been critical to the courts' survival. And she said the funding concerns come at a time when 17 more communities are looking to start youth courts.

The loss of the federal grant could close Juneau's program, said Weston Eiler, a local teenager who is outgoing chairman of the Alaska Youth Court Sustainability Coalition.

''We're looking seriously at shutting down operations if we can't make that money up,'' said Eiler, also a member of the Juneau Youth Court board of directors.

About 20 volunteers from grades eight through 12 serve on the Juneau Youth Court, which handled 40 cases this past fiscal year, said coordinator Glen Ray.

The state has given youth courts about $400,000 a year from the federal Juvenile Accountability Incentive Block Grant. But the state cut that back to $330,000 for the fiscal year that begins July 1 as the total grant was scaled down, said MaShelle Atherton, state administrative probation officer. The grant also helps pay for the state Division of Juvenile Justice.

The president's budget for next fiscal year doesn't include the grant. Barring the emergence of another grant, the state won't have money to pass on to youth courts in the fiscal year that begins July 2004.

''If youth courts can't make up for that, they will have to scale back or cease operations,'' Atherton said.

The youth courts have asked the Legislature to set aside for them a portion of fines collected by the criminal justice system. Youths crafted a sample bill, which served as the basis for a real bill, and then lobbied for it.

House Bill 303, sponsored late in the session by Rep. Dan Ogg, a Kodiak Republican, picked up all of the House Judiciary Committee members as co-sponsors as it passed that panel. The bill was in the House Finance Committee as the session ended in May and could advance when lawmakers reconvene in January.

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