By David Laprad
Over 50 students from 12 area schools have been trained and added to the Hamilton County Youth Court. Juvenile Court Judge Robert Philyaw administered the oath during a brief ceremony Tuesday, Oct. 18.
After the ceremony, Judge Philyaw thanked local school administrators and the attorneys at Miller & Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield of Tennessee (BCBS) for their support. “While youth courts contribute to a decrease in recidivism by providing a peer-operated disposition mechanism that allows young people to take responsibility, be held accountable, and make amends for violating the law, its true value and long-lasting effect lies with the students who are exposed to the law, the judicial process, and professionals like these during a meaningful extracurricular activity,” he said.
Youth Court is dedicated to rehabilitating first time nonviolent offenders by holding them accountable for their behaviors and educating them about citizenship. The goal is to use positive peer pressure to ensure young people who have committed offenses repair the damage they caused to their victims and community. Youth Court also provides the opportunity for the young offender to receive the help he or she needs to avoid further involvement in the juvenile justice system.
May Hartness, a senior at Boyd-Buchanan School and one of the students who took the oath from Judge Philyaw, said Youth Court appealed to her because it provides an outlet for her academic interests as well as her relationship with her community. “I hope this experience will open my eyes to career opportunities, as well as provide me with a strong sense of the value of restorative justice,” she said. “Youth Court has already taught me that restoration, rather than punishment, is the most effective way to build a healthy community.”
Attorney Denise Bentley, the executive director of Tennessee Youth Courts, says positive peer pressure and restorative justice make a powerful, nearly unbeatable combination. “It’s a combination that has resulted in fewer than three percent of juveniles returning to the behavior that got them in trouble,” she said. “The program has maintained this low rate of recidivism statewide for three consecutive years.”
Juvenile offenders are not sent to Youth Court; they choose it. When a first-time offender admits to committing the charge filed against him or her, that young person is given the choice of having a traditional juvenile court hearing or allowing his or her peers to determine the sentence in Youth Court.
The young people who participate in the Youth Court program receive rigorous training, says Bentley, who conducted an initial half-day of training in September with the assistance of Boyd Patterson from the Hamilton County District Attorney’s Office. The Hamilton County Juvenile Court staff conducted another four hours of training, and committee partners such as attorneys from Miller & Martin and BCBS continue the training on a regular basis.
Teens learn about court procedures, court decorum, and how to make opening statements, closing arguments, and ask questions during direct and cross. “They also learn to deliberate and respect each other, even when they disagree,” Bentley said. “The youth learn how to look at situations from multiple perspectives and listen as well as share ideas on what outcome or services are best for the young person who got in trouble.”
Many of the benefits of Youth Court extend beyond the juvenile offenders to their families and victims, and to the young people who participate as members of the court, Bentley says. “Victims may have their say as to what they need to be made whole. Sometimes, the one thing that will repair the harm is a genuine apology,” she says. “In traditional court settings, we often find that others speak for the victim. In Youth Court, the victim may have a say in what they think would be the best result. Remember: we’re talking about restorative justice, not revenge.”
Tennessee now has 19 counties with 26 youth courts. Bentley, who lives and works in Nashville, Tenn., visited Chattanooga in September to take part in Hamilton County’s Youth Court training. She says she couldn’t be prouder of the program.
“This year’s group of Youth Court members is even better than the year before. They take their roles and responsibilities seriously,” she says. “Hamilton County also boasts one of the strongest partnerships between the legal community and the Juvenile Court in this state. The members of Youth Court prepare for their hearings with the assistance of the wonderfully committed attorneys at Miller & Martin and Blue Cross Blue Shield, who gives up their evenings to work with the program.”
Bentley says Judge Philyaw’s commitment to youth court has been just as vital. “By deciding to establish a Youth Court in Hamilton County, Judge Philyaw has made a true investment in the youth of his community. He has not just brought in a program, he has brought in a program that works, that is low-cost, and that brings opportunities to both the youth who have made mistakes and those who have not. It’s an investment in our youth that will bring the community a high return.” v