LANCASTER – Sometimes good kids make bad choices. It may be the first-time choice to cut school, to experiment with drugs, or to steal something from a store. If caught and sent through the juvenile court system, these youths could wind up with a permanent record.
“When you turn 18, it does not go away,” says Lancaster Public Safety Officer Lee D’Errico. “If you try to go into the military or civil service employment or in aerospace with high security clearance, your record is there. It trails you for the rest of your life.”
For youths who make mistakes and take responsibility for their actions, the City of Lancaster provides an alternative to the juvenile court system that leaves no permanent record.
The Antelope Valley Community Youth Court (AVCYC) is a program designed to give first-time, nonviolent offenders between the ages of 12 and 17, who have broken the law and admitted their guilt, a second chance.
“Youth court is our attempt to catch the kids before they get into the system,” said Senior Criminal Justice Analyst James Kobolt, one of the coordinators of the program.
Since becoming operational in Oct. 2010, AVCYC has processed about 100 cases, says Kobolt.
Court sessions are conducted twice a month in the City Council Chambers of Lancaster City Hall. A volunteer judge presides, and offending youths are sentenced by a jury of their peers. But unlike traditional court, there are no attorneys, court clerks, or bailiffs.
“It is not a finding of fact court, it is a disposition court,” says Kobolt. “This court is for youths who believe they did something wrong and want to accept responsibility for it.”
Cases for youth court are usually referred by the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, and usually consist of low level offenses, infractions or misdemeanors, such as minor drug possessions, fighting, stealing or skipping school.
“Not being in school when you’re supposed to be and curfew violations have been a high priority of the City because they have a direct impact on our Part I crimes,” Kobolt says. “When they (Sheriff’s Department) receive these citations, they check the child in the computer for prior history, and if the youth has no prior history, they’ll send the case over to us.”
Kobolt says when a case is referred to AVCYC, several steps are taken.
A case worker reaches out to the juvenile’s parents to explain how youth court works and obtain parental consent for the youth’s participation. If parental consent is given, the juvenile comes in for an initial screening where a caseworker determines if the youth is accepting full responsibility for the crime. The caseworker also guides the youth in putting together a personal development plan explaining what was done wrong, what steps are being taken to make sure that it doesn’t happen again, and what goals will be achieved in the future. The caseworker then sets a date for the youth to appear in court and face a judge and peer jury.
AVCYC normally runs between three and six cases per court session. Youths are called to the podium one by one, accompanied by their parents. The judge reads the charges against the youth, the youth accepts the charges, and then the youth reads the previously prepared personal development plan to the judge and jury.
The floor is then open for the judge and peer jury to ask questions of either the offending youth or his/her parents.
“When the youths start asking questions, it gets interesting,” says Kobolt. “Often times the parents may not know stuff about their kids or the kids may not know things about their parents.”
After questions, jurors go into a separate room to deliberate and determine an appropriate sentence.
“We give the jurors guidelines to follow,” says Kobolt. “There is a sentencing sheet that they often work through just like a regular jury would have to do at a regular trial.”
Sentencing may include classes, essay assignments, counseling, community service, and letters of apology.
“The whole idea is to allow youths to repair the damage they did to the community for their actions and for their truancy, whether it’s theft, whether it’s fighting, whether it’s drug use — whatever the case might be,” he says.
In many cases, offending youths are sentenced to future jury service in youth court, says Kobolt.
When youths complete their sentences, there is no further action taken on their citations and their cases stay out of the criminal justice system.
This benefits the youths as well as the community, say City officials.
“There’s a large amount of funding that goes toward handling one particular case [in traditional juvenile court],” says D’Errico. “But if you have a divertible case, it benefits the youth as well as stops the community resource drain.”
Youth court participants pay a court processing fee of $175, which is used to sustain the program. The program also relies on partnerships with California State University Bakersfield’s social work program and community agencies like Paving the Way, to provide therapy, skills and education to help steer youths on the right path.
“So that the next choice they make will not be like the one they made before,” says Janie Hodge, Executive Director of Paving the Way Foundation.
AVCYC will hold its next session on Jan. 24. For more information on this process, visit the City’s website.