February 14, 2004 - ZNet Commentaries (Web)

The Problem Is The Solution?

By Sean Gonsalves

Take the cliche - "thinking outside of the box"- and apply it literally.

What you get is a formula for how to keep people out of the most dreaded box of all - prison.

Add to that the wisdom of preventive medicine, and the focus naturally turns to the question: how can we intervene in the lives of at-risk youth before they begin to think that crime pays.

Following these simple principles produced the Washington, D.C. Youth Court.

The idea for this juvenile diversion program was first conceived in 1968 by a law professor smitten with a bit of Dr. Martin Luther King fever. Three decades later, Ed Cahn's dream became a reality.

And like King, Cahn's dream was based on a nightmarish observation. "The juvenile justice system was serving as the feeder - the supply line - into adult prisons," he explains while driving towards his home in the Friendship Heights neighborhood, which only a year ago served as Youth Court staff headquarters, occupying a basement office.

Then, without a hint of cynicism or resignation in his voice, Cahn ticks off the numbers. "In Washington D.C. over 50 percent of young black males, between the ages of 18 and 24, are now under court supervision - either in prison, on parole, or on probation."

The journey, he says, starts with a juvenile's first brush with the law and the response they get. The first response, as you might expect in an overburdened system, is one of benign neglect. The prosecutors are more concerned with hardened criminals and repeat offenders.

"That's how it begins. But by the third arrest, the formal juvenile proceeding functions as a rite of passage rather than a chance to choose a different path. Without meaning to, the juvenile system is turning young kids into hardened criminals faster than any gang in town."

"When I shared that observation with (D.C. Superior Court) Chief Judge (Eugene) Hamilton he said: 'What do you want to do about it?'"

That was 1995.

But it wasn't until April 1996 that Cahn and Hamilton signed their names on the decree that established the first Youth Court in Washington, D.C., which is funded by the non-profit Time Dollar Institute, another creation of Cahn's designed to convert personal time into purchasing power for those that our globalized economy considers to be non-productive "takers.'

The court agreement describes the TimeDollar Youth Court as a "diversion program" that provides a "meaningful alternative to the traditional adjudicatory format in juvenile cases" for "nonviolent first-time offenders."

In laymen's terms that means: if a youth is arrested for the first time in his or her life for some kind of petty crime, they get a second chance to get their act together without it going on their record.

What started as a slow trickle of cases has turned into a full-time operation with hundreds of cases being referred to Youth Court each year now that word is beginning to spread among police and prosecutors.

But this isn't your run-of-the-mill diversion program. The Youth Court is based on the maxim that the problem is an important part of the solution. "Kids don't listen to old people as much as they listen to their peers" is how Cahn puts it.

So, the Youth Court revolves around youth juries composed of former offenders, empowered to question incoming offenders about their crime and circumstances, and then impose a sentence on the "respondant" - the Youth Court term for what adult courts refer to as a defendant.

After a hearing in which a youth jury questions both the respondant and his or her parent(s), the jury deliberates as only street-savvy youngsters can. They discuss, and sometimes debate, different aspects of the testimony in trying to decide how they are going to hold the respondant accountable, while at the same time providing a dose of positive peer pressure with the hopes of derailing yet another one of their peers from traveling the road-too-frequently-taken - the road that ends in being "dead or locked up."

A standard sentence includes jury duty for eight Saturday hearings, which gives Youth Court staff, working in tandem with court and Department of Mental Health officials, a chance to make an assessment of whatever social services the respondant and his or her family may need.

Typically, Youth Court juries also impose an array of other instruments of accountability such as requiring the respondant to write an essay reflecting on the offense committed, offering "sincere" apologies to the victim and or their own family, doing up to 90 hours of community service, enrolling in a mentoring program or drug abuse, and paying restitution to the victim.

Saturday hearings are held in classrooms at the University of the District of Columbia, which has its own stop on the Metro line making it relatively easy (and affordable) for participants to attend regularly.

Though the Youth Court seeks to hold respondants accountable, the program isn't all stick and no carrot. The Youth Court also offers material incentives for Youth Court participants in form of Time Dollars in which one hour of community service earns one Time Dollar. These Time Dollars can be used to purchase services from participating community-based organizations or from the Time Dollar Store.

Will the Time Dollar Youth Court alter Anthony's life toward something more positive? Does the Youth Court reduce recividism? The jury is still out on those questions, given the lack of empirical evidence and the short-time that the Youth Court has been in existence.

But it certainly appears that at least for some kids, the Youth Court has helped give them a sense of importance and responsibility, as well as inspire in some a sense of service to the broader community.

Tameka Linzy, a 13-year-old eighth-grader attending Jefferson Junior High School, says she's been so inspired by the Youth Court that she has become a volunteer juror even though she's finished her sentence.

"I really enjoy being here. The girl that I fought - the reason why I even came to Youth Court - we're friends now. She's a juror too," Linzy says.

"What I like about it the best is learning new things. And I like to help people," she adds, noting that since she's become involved in Youth Court she now has her sights set on being a lawyer.

Linzy's involvement and newfound enthusiasm for law was cultivated, in part, by the Youth Court staff who are charged with running the day-to-day administrative tasks and following-up with all those who are referred to the Youth Court.

Kenny, a former juvenile delinquent with a talent for fixing computers, handles the mid-sentence and exit interviews for the Youth Court.

A native of southeast Washington, Kenny knows the streets. And during after-school and evening hours he drives to the homes of juveniles sentenced by the Youth Court to check their progress and talk to them about what's happening in the hood.

At the Simpson house in northeast D.C., Kenny arrives just as the two Youth Court respondants were getting ready to leave and hang out with friends.

Melissa, 17, and Vanessa Mahoney, 14, live with their parents and their younger sister. They get good grades in school and are seldom in trouble, according to their mother Rose.

But these "good girls" got "clamped up" for joy riding in a stolen car. They didn't steal the car but they were caught for the "unauthorized use" of a car they knew had been stolen, having been inspired by a television show that demonstrated how to hot wire a vehicle using a butter-knife.

Fortunately for them, the arresting officer knew the girls and he knew about the Youth Court program.

Though the Mahoney girls acknowledge Kenny's efforts, it's their mother Rose who is most appreciative.

"It reminds of the ROTC. It instills discipline and accountability. I'm very grateful for the Youth Court. I like what they are doing with the children. I saw my own children being responsible in ways that weren't before. I saw that in them," she says.

"I get teary-eyed thinking about it. My children's reputation in school is good. I didn't want them to lose that. I want to volunteer with the Youth Court because I like what they do. It's a second-chance, you know?"

From January to July 2003, the Youth Court processed 273 cases and held 195 hearings. Of those youth, 88 received juror training. And now, Youth Court executive director Carolyn Dallas is dreaming of broadening the program so that hearings can be held in all of the city's wards.

But, first Dallas is moving the staff toward creating a more unified hearing process that includes a manual for standard procedures that can be applied in each hearing, further imbuing a sense of law, order and respect for their alternative juvenile justice system.

Having moved out of Cahn's basement to a small office on the third floor of the D.C. Superior Court building, Dallas is encouraging her staff of eight to challenge themselves because "we are moving and the pace is picking up," as she told them in a recent staff meeting.

"We are a strength-based organization. We have to draw on each other's strengths and talents and we have to multi-task," she tells them.

It's the potential strength of the Youth Court and its impact on the mostly African-American youth in D.C. that still makes Judge Hamilton proud that he signed his name on the decree that established the Youth Court.

In a recent interview, Hamilton said: "the Youth Court was an answer to a system that had become jaded and indifferent, and treated children in a routine, business-as-usual manner without trying to be innovative or creative."

"The Youth Court brought all that together and provided an opportunity for young people to participate in the system and at the same time held them accountable in a nurturing way," he said.

Hamilton acknowledged that there's a "resistance to change and innovation" in our criminal justice system but said that the Youth Court demonstrates that such programs are not just "pipe dreams."

"Because it's peer oriented, kids approach the problem from their own level.

And you want to get these kids talking about why they are there and what can be done to cope with these factors in a positive way," the judge continued.

Asked for evidence of the program's merit, Hamilton said: "If you sit and listen to these kids deliberate you see the tremendous learning process that goes on. You see the lights going on in their minds about what's appropriate and what's not appropriate behavior. It's a tremendous learning tool."

So, while the president offers up space dreams, right under his nose is a dream-based reality much more worthy of taxpayer money than digging for Mars minerals on behalf of corporate America or building military bases on the moon from which to dominate earth, as U.S. Space Command documents clearly show and the "liberal" media has all but ignored.

For more information about the Youth Court see go to: http://www.timedollar.org/Applications/juvenile%20justice.htm

ZNet commentator Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist. You can e-mail him at sgonsalves@capecodonline.com

For the latest drug war news, visit our friends and allies below

We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform, they also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.

The Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Drug Sense and The Media Awareness Project