Unclogging the Court System through Juvenile Justice Reform

By D. Dowd Muska
  • Sunday, August 9, 1998

Executive Summary

The United States currently faces a severe juvenile crime wave. Youths violate the law with increasing frequency, and criminologists believe things are likely to get worse before they get better. States have responded to this crisis in a number of ways. Perhaps the most popular option is to "crack down" on violent offenders. These juveniles are often tried as adults and incarcerated at adult facilities.

But officials at all levels of the juvenile justice system warn that prevention and early-intervention programs are essential to deter at-risk youth from a career in crime. Non-parental role models are particularly needed to steer troubled adolescents -- many of whom do not have adequate parental guidance -- away from a life of crime. One way to involve such non-parental figures in the lives of minor and first-time juvenile offenders is through community juvenile courts. These programs remove an offender from the formal juvenile court process. Participants in community juvenile courts agree to appear before a panel comprised of volunteers from the local neighborhood. The panel meets with the youth to discusses his or her criminal act, and then decides on the type of "contract" the offender must perform. The contract can involve community service, academic work or the payment of a fine or restitution.

Proponents of community juvenile courts believe their approach to handling lesser offenders produces many benefits: tax dollars are saved through the participation of unpaid judges, and thus legal resources are freed to address the problem of chronic, dangerous offenders. In addition, since judges are chosen from a youth's own community, a direct connection exists between all participants in the process. Also, diversion to a community justice panel removes the gang "badge of courage" often earned from incarceration.

Successful juvenile community courts have been established in a number of states, including New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. Nevada's neighbor California recently began to organize such a program. Community juvenile courts have proven their value in King County, Washington, and display encouraging signs in Maricopa County, Arizona.

Nevada's system of juvenile justice is currently strained to the breaking point. Detention facilities are overrun with cases, and a lack of funding constrains officials, ability to develop innovations and alternatives to incarceration. The state could benefit from the implementation of a system of community juvenile courts. Not only would such a program save legal costs and reduce overcrowding, it would directly involve positive adult figures in the lives of the state's at~risk youth. Nevada's juvenile justice officials are willing -- and in fact, explicitly seek -- to implement community-based solutions to the problem of youthful offenders. Community juvenile courts are a good place to start.

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