Officials brainstorm how to create citywide youth courts

A sophomore high school honors student was on her way to a Philadelphia job fair recently when she was thrown in jail, Cathy Weiss of youth nonprofit The Stoneleigh Foundation testified before a City Council committee yesterday.

The girl’s only offense? She was carrying a canister of pepper spray her mother gave her for nights when she had to walk home from school in the dark.

“What is the sense or logic behind handcuffing and putting this young woman in a jail cell?” Weiss said, pointing out the child already lived in fear of walking alone at night. “Why did none of the adults with authority simply ask this honors student with no history of trouble why she had pepper spray?”

That is the first question a youth court would address, she said. Through non-punitive diversionary programs, young people who commit minor offenses are prosecuted, defended and tried by their peers, then sentenced to penalties like restitution, written apologies or community service.

“How I act today is a result of how the youth court pushed me to better myself,” said recent Chester High School graduate Brian Foster. “I’m absolutely positive if the youth got the opportunity I had, the youth court can be a major component in the fight against violence.”

Councilman Curtis Jones said that, while efforts have been made to pass state legislation establishing the initiative, “We wanted to explore the possibility of an ordinance enacted at the local level or insisting upon it at the school level.”

Some Philadelphia public schools still operate the program, but district-wide implementation was axed in 2009 due to a leadership change, one school official said.

Administrative Judge of the Court of Common Pleas’ Family Court Division Kevin Dougherty, who said it was the first time his office was invited to the table to help craft such an initiative in the city, said that he supported any measure that would keep youth who commit minor offenses from his court, where penalties are severe.

“The laws have changed so that a juvenile judged delinquent will now be a convicted felon the rest of their life,” he said. “…My position is diversion, not penetration. Keep them out of my system.”

Jones recessed the hearing to process the information presented and provide for further discussion of best practices. “As we develop a hybrid, possibly some borrowed some blue, we will incorporate what we heard today,” he said.

Youth courts got smaller, not larger

After passionately discussing her positive experiences with youth courts, Department of Human Services Commissioner Anne Marie Ambrose said that she was forced to cut funding to them last year. “I think it gives you some context in very tough economic times, even commissioners who know benefits of the program have to make hard decisions,” she said.

“We’re looking for the quarters in the couch to pay for the dollars we don’t have,” Jones said. “But when we look at the cost of not doing this … the malcontent today becomes the defendant who, later in life, we have to deal with for a plethora of costs.”

He said that converting an empty classroom into a mock courtroom could cost up to $30,000, plus labor and teaching materials. But he pointed out that every prisoner costs $35,000 per year to house, plus around $10,000 in administrative fees per case.

Jones also said that City Council plans to craft the majority of the budget over the summer this year, rather than waiting until January. The change will allow them to establish priorities early on and find creative ways to fund the programs and services most important to them and to their constituents, he said.

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