Twelve angry children

A pioneering project in inner-city New York gives children the chance to learn about the legal system - without having to break the law - and to pass sentence on their peers. Could the youth court now be coming to Britain?
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The Independent Online

Red Hook, New York, is a grim warren of guns, drugs and gangsters roaming the alleys of the huge social housing estates. Cars idling ominously down the neglected streets cut off from the rest of New York City by roaring expressways. Nervous eyes watching you from heavily defended liquor stores. It's easy to write off the kids who grow up in this neighbourhood as part of the crime problem.

Red Hook, New York, is a grim warren of guns, drugs and gangsters roaming the alleys of the huge social housing estates. Cars idling ominously down the neglected streets cut off from the rest of New York City by roaring expressways. Nervous eyes watching you from heavily defended liquor stores. It's easy to write off the kids who grow up in this neighbourhood as part of the crime problem.

But three local teenagers, Shirley, Robert and Lokesha, are involved in an experiment that gives youths a chance to play key roles in the criminal justice process. They are active members of a peer jury - in a new "kids court", where the jurors, judge, bailiff, advocates and defendants are all local teenagers.

The Red Hook Youth Court is one of the projects of New York's Centre for Court Innovation, which is trying to bring courts closer to the people they serve. On the hot, humid afternoon when we visited, Denise was up for smoking marijuana. As she slouched in the dock, drumming her electric-blue fake fingernails on the desk, she looked very young. The judge, next to her, looked even younger. All the court officers are chosen in rotation from the jury pool, made up of local schoolchildren.

First to speak were the advocates - one representing the offender and the other the local community - who made statements from scrawls in their school notebooks. These teenagers were very different from the defence and prosecution lawyers in a British court, not least because they advanced almost identical arguments. Smoking marijuana, they both said, set a bad example for local children; but Denise was a good girl who studied hard and helped her mother out around the house.

Then the jury - resplendent in red T-shirts - took over, firing rapid questions at the hapless Denise. "Why were you smoking?" "When did you start smoking?" "What do you get out of it?" "How did you feel?" "Do you know the effects of marijuana?" "How often do you smoke?" "If you had the craving would you do it again?" "Was the reason you've stopped smoking just because you were arrested?" "How did you feel when the cops picked you up?" "How did you feel when your friends ran away?"

If Denise did not feel guilty when arrested, she certainly looked it after that interrogation. The 15 or so jury members then retired and quickly returned with their sanction. Denise had to do six hours of community service and write essays about the effects of marijuana on herself and on the community.

The centre wants to use the community both to decide how to punish offenders and to make sure the punishments are effective. John Feinblatt, the centre's director, says: "When I was a kid, when I got into trouble, my mother used to always blame it on my contemporaries and blame it on peer pressure. What we're saying is, 'Let's turn peer pressure on its head. Let's have peer pressure be something constructive in the community.' "

The court applies that pressure to local teenagers, aged from 10 to 15, who have been arrested for minor offences such as spraying graffiti or persistently playing truant. Such arrests are an ideal opportunity for early intervention to prevent the kids from going on to more serious crime.

Under the normal procedure, police give them written cautions - which are usually ignored and forgotten by kids and cops alike. But for the last two years, these young offenders have instead been able to opt for a hearing at the youth court. There is no question of guilt or innocence: the offenders have already admitted the infraction. The court's role is to decide on the punishment - or "sanction", in youth-court jargon - usually a form of community service.

The youth court has only limited powers to enforce punishments - but John Feinblatt reports a compliance rate of 94 per cent, far higher than that for the conventional criminal courts. And the youth court has, so far, experienced little recidivism among the 100 or more cases it has tried. In fact several defendants have been so impressed with the experience, that they later volunteered to join the jury pool, along with Shirley, Robert and Lokesha.

Shirley says her most interesting case was a boy charged with persistent truancy who sullenly opposed the entire procedure, refusing to answer questions or giving abusive replies. "We liked that experience," she says. "He lied. It was really challenging." The truant got 20 hours' community service.

Lokesha adds that most defendants feel that the jurors can understand their situation, because they are likely to have faced the same problems. It's not like when an adult talks to them - "Blah, blah, in one ear and out the other." All three teenagers feel that the court does a lot to challenge the stereotypes of irresponsible inner-city youth. And the small stipend paid to regular members of the jury pool is another inducement for them to take part.

The Red Hook experiment is not unique - there are an estimated 500 other teen courts in America - but it is unusually well organised. The court is part of a local justice centre located in a former school, which has been converted into a bright and attractive building. Defendants can be referred to educational programmes, drug-abuse sessions or anger-management courses, all offered at the justice centre. And unlike most teen courts, the Red Hook jury is not creamed off from the élite students of the best schools, but drawn from a wide cross-section of local teenagers.

This is one innovation in American criminal justice that has yet to cross the Atlantic. In practice, it might be difficult to introduce this kind of experiment in the British courts, which tend to be much more uniform than their US counterparts. There are serious questions, too, about whether such a court would comply with the Human Rights Act's guarantee of a fair trial.

Those reasons make experts such as Harry Fletcher, assistant general secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers, dubious about whether the Red Hook experiment could be reproduced in the UK, except in a closed environment such as a school.

Others in the field think the theories behind the teen courts have potential for Britain. George Barrow, spokesman for the Association of Chief Officers of Probation, believes that if peer pressure can be a cause of crime, it can also be a solution to it. "Peer pressure can work both ways," he argues.

The film-maker and criminologist Roger Graef sees the youth court as part of a wider movement toward restorative justice, where the offender makes good his crime to the victims or the community. "I think it could work here," he says. "The more ownership that is given to the general public of these procedures, and the less left to the professionals, the better."

The writer has produced a report on Red Hook Youth Court for 'Crossing Continents' on BBC Radio 4 at 11am on 10 August and at 8.30pm on 14 August