New Bedford, Taunton and Fall River Youth Court programs have joined together...
Massachusetts based Youth Courts will host a Meet and Greet reception for the Secretary of the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security, Mary Elisabeth Heffernan, from 4:00-5:00PM on Tuesday March 29th at New Bedford Regional Vocational Technical High School.
New Bedford, Taunton and Fall River Youth Court programs have joined together to sponsor this event in hopes of bringing state and local officials as well as community partners together to discuss the future and sustainability of these valuable juvenile diversion programs. Student volunteer lawyers as well as former youth court respondents will share their personal youth court stories with those in attendance. Bristol County District Attorney Sam Sutter, a strong supporter of Youth Court throughout the county will also be in attendance to offer remarks. District Attorney Sutter’s office---through its Juvenile Diversion Program---regularly refers juveniles away from criminal court and into Youth Court. The district attorney’s prosecutors have volunteered more than 580 hours to Youth Court in the past three years. His prosecutors often volunteer as Youth Court judges and they also provide training to Youth Court volunteers who will serve as the prosecution or defense.
Following the reception, the Secretary will experience New Bedford Youth Court firsthand by serving as the volunteer judge for the evening. She is expected to preside over four cases involving first time juvenile offenders. The hearings are held in a closed courtroom process with no general public access.
As the first nationally recognized Youth Court in Massachusetts, New Bedford Youth Court began in 2002 followed by Taunton Youth Court in 2006 and then Fall River Youth Court in 2009. The programs have operated on a diverse stream of funding sources over their years of operation. Unfortunately, our current economic climate threatens their continuation. Taunton was forced to close their youth court last month due to severe funding losses. Fall River is slated to cease taking cases by the end of next month and without some influx of new funding and sustainable strategies, New Bedford will be in jeopardy at the end of the fiscal year, June 30th.
Lisa Tavares from New Bedford Youth Court and speaking for all three programs said, “This is a very serious situation. We have incredible community support for our programs and they have all had demonstrated exemplary success. Together as communities we are truly changing the lives of many of these young people through this grass roots effort. We have to remain confident that the right people will recognize that this is an effort worthy of saving and together we will figure out how that can happen.” Tavares also noted that over 100 letters have been gathered. “Every letter we have received is compelling. The outpouring of support has been amazing.”
Youth Courts serve as a diversion to traditional court offering juvenile offenders the opportunity to prevent what would otherwise be a stain on their criminal record. Offenders agree to accept responsibility for their actions (typically misdemeanor crimes or less serious infractions) and to resolve their behaviors through adjudication by their peers. Youth Courts are nationally recognized programs with more than 1100 operating in 49 states. The three Youth Court programs have made a real impact in Bristol County with more than 1200 cases being heard since inception and an average compliance rate of 92%. In addition, the recidivism rate is very low. Youth offenders are referred to youth court by schools, police or the District Attorney’s Office.
In addition, Youth Courts serve as a valuable tool for the student volunteers by helping them to develop an understanding and respect for the justice system, expand their legal education and empower community involvement. Peer volunteer representatives serve as prosecuting and defense attorneys arguing the facts at a formal hearing process. A peer jury comprised of youth volunteers is responsible for listening to the facts, weighing the testimony and delivering the appropriate sanction for the offense committed, including such things as community service, public apologies, restitution, curfews, clinical assessments, academic and attendance performance requirements, and mandatory programming such as tutoring and mentoring.