Juvenile Justice: Community Courts

Juvenile Justice experiments have been popping up across the country, some with remarkable success. If Nevada implemented the simplest of these ideas, namely, Community Juvenile Courts, the state could profit from the innovation in four ways by:

  • Saving already stretched legal resources and tax dollars
  • Providing long term guidance and aid to kids who have had their first brush with the law
  • Taking away the gang "badge of courage" that is, arrest and incarceration
  • Combining a volunteer workforce with trained judicial specialists

Community Justice Committees which are just starting to take hold in Maricopa County, Arizona are not a new concept. At work in neighborhoods from New Jersey to Texas to Washington State, they are tallying successes.

Experts in juvenile justice equate Community Justice Courts to MASH units during war times. Each unit is coordinated by area managers which represent juvenile justice in a predetermined geographical boundary. For example, many states use counties as natural boundaries. According to Bob Brunswick, a county manager for King County, Washington, "You find out where the bleeding is and stop it, then you send them on to someone who can help them long term."

In King County, about 450 volunteers in 26 Seattle-area communities see about 5,000 juveniles a year. About 90 percent of the juveniles complete their contracts which can include: paying restitution, attending mandatory school attendance, staying out of certain neighborhoods, attend counseling, mentoring, and being involved in environmental clean-up and other creative and personalized "punishments." The goal is to teach that all behaviors, good or bad, have consequences and that personal choices determine life outcomes.

The mandated contracts can also include mediation with crime victims where neighbors sit down with neighbors to work out solutions. But there is an added benefit. Neighborhood adults are brought into constructive dialog with kids, and kids close to them realize that adults really care.

Recidivism Study

The only recidivism study done in the King County program, where the program started in 1959, reaffirms the success of the program. The study, done in 1977 when Community Justice Courts were first officially mandated by the Legislature, found that 84.5 percent of those sent to diversion-type programs did not re-offend. The program has served as a wake-up call for adolescence who are veering off from making good decisions and who are first time offenders. Essential to the program’s success is the exclusion of repeat offenders as well as those who engage in criminal acts which are violent in nature (rape, murder, aggravated assault, larceny, etc.).

How It Works

Community committees which include two to four citizens join with a court representative at weekly meetings. With the victim and perpetrator present, approximately 45 minutes is devoted to the facts of each case. With the committee members equipped with firsthand knowledge of their neighborhood’s characteristics, make- up, and problems, the committees can mete out justice that is more creative and more personal than what the courts presently are able to do. In addition to counseling and community service, consequences could include attending computer or other enrichment classes, mentoring at neighborhood youth enters, writing apologies to victims and parents and writing essays and research papers. The result is a program that benefits the neighborhood as a whole, as well as the juveniles.

Many youthful violations such as curfew violations, minor shoplifting, fighting between kids, fighting between families, and disorderly conduct don’t merit going through the court system. Instead, they can be resolved through the Community Justice System. The community panels empower parents by offering support beyond the immediate family to resolve issues.

A Case Study in Phoenix

Marybel hopped in the stolen convertible to cruise South Central Avenue with two friends. Within hours, police caught up with her. Marybel didn’t go before a judge. Instead, she faced a committee of citizens from her central Phoenix neighborhood. The Neighborhood Committee is central to Arizona’s first effort to bring community-based justice to the juvenile courts. It is the first of 15 such Community Justice Committees being formed throughout Maricopa County, and many more are planned from Phoenix to Fountain Hills to Mesa. Judge John Forman, who presides over the Juvenile Division of County Superior Court, brought the concept to the Valley in June of 1996.

"It’s easy to sit back and look at the TV with a beer in your hand, and complain about the world as it goes by," Foreman said, "but we’re asking these kids to take responsibility for their actions, and the community is going to be held responsible for its actions, too. We’re the surrogate parents for these kids, and we’d like the community to get more involved so that they’ll know what the problems are. If the Community does it in cooperation with the courts, we’ll both be better off.

Reprinted from the Arizona Republic, Judy Villa, 11/6/96