New Group Of Teens Ready To Become Youth Court Officers

OSWEGO, NY – The next generation of Youth Court clerks, defense attorneys, prosecutors and judges wrapped up training recently.

Youth Court offers young lawbreakers an alternative to the usual court system – a “trial by their peers.”

Nearly two dozen students from schools around the county took part in the program held at Oswego City Hall.

A group of students share a light moment during the training for Youth Court.
A group of students share a light moment during the training for Youth Court.

Guest speakers included representatives from the Oswego Police Department, the District Attorney’s office and probation.

When they hand down a sentence, it must be completed, said Brian Chetney, a Youth Court advisor from the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau.

The offender can’t come back to them and say he or she only felt like doing 50 hours of their 52-hour community service, he pointed out.

“If they do, the case goes is taken out of Youth Court and goes to Family Court,” he said.

In Youth Court, the offender’s records are shredded when they turn 16, but a Family Court record will stay with them for the rest of their lives, he said.

“So, just remember, this is no joke. It’s serious stuff,” he told the students.

The students take their Youth Court positions seriously; some are even considering a career in law or law enforcement.

Lacey Buskey of G. Ray Bodley High School was on the Fulton team for the county wide mock trial competition earlier this year. The team placed first among Oswego County schools.

She told her guidance counselor she was thinking about becoming an attorney.

“So, he suggested that I might also want to get involved with Youth Court,” she explained. “I did the mock trial and I really liked it. So, I thought this would be good experience. I could try it out before I went to school for it.”

“I heard about Youth Court from some people who are a part of it. I thought it was something interesting,” said Alanna Maldonado of Oswego High School.

Her career path may lead to the legal field as well, “if it’s what I decide what I want to do,” she said.

“I have learned a lot; about seeing things from both sides of the stories and to examine all the details,” she said.

If she were a judge in Youth Court, she said she would be fair when handing out punishments.

“The cases are different, the people are different. I think I would try to be fair and give them what they deserve,” she said.

Buskey agreed.

“One of the main goals of Youth Court is to rehabilitate the offenders so they won’t do anything wrong again,” she pointed out.

Erin Delaney is an Oswego Middle Schooler.

“It can be fun, as you can tell by the people who are part of it,” she said of the members of the Youth Bureau conducting the training, punctuated by several light-hearted moments during the day.

“There are two sides to every story. You have to pay attention to what everybody’s saying in a case,” she explained.

Keeghan McSweeney is also an OMS student.

He said he is interested in learning how the law system works and “this would be an interesting experience.”

Youth Court isn’t like the court shows you see on TV, he pointed out.

The prosecutor isn’t trying to prove you’re guilty and the defense trying to show you’re not guilty, he said.

To be eligible for Youth Court, an offender has to admit his or her guilt, he said.

Youth Court members have to listen to both parties and then decide what is the best sentence for the offenders, he said.

Youth Court Overview

It’s is a national program that is about 36 years old.

Oswego’s is the second oldest program in New York State of New York, according to Kathleen Fenlon, executive director of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau.

Youth Court handles about 50 cases a year. It teaches young people a lot about fairness.

Besides the financial savings, Youth Court also saves time, court officials said.

Stacey Lighthall of Oswego County Probation addresses the 2010 Youth Court class
Stacey Lighthall of Oswego County Probation addresses the 2010 Youth Court class

It saves time in Family Court as well as the time the defendants’ parents have to take off from work and the time police officers have to take off to come in and testify, they pointed out.

Youth Court can have a positive affect on everyone who takes part, some of the current and former members said.

Youth Court is a recognized community diversion program aimed at keeping young offenders out of Family Court. The program is voluntary; the parent/youth cannot be forced to participate.

It isn’t a fact-finding court; in order to participate in Youth Court the offender first needs to admit guilt. Their peers will decide the amount of guilt.

Members are trained to become judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and court clerks. Hearings are conducted and real punishments for offenders are handed out.

Confidentiality is key to the program’s success, members and advisors said.

Only Youth Court members that don’t know the defendant can serve on the case, according to Chetney.

A defendant is allowed to view a list of the assigned members to his/her case and removes the names of people that he/she knows personally or feels may act in a biased manner in the case decision.

Also, if a member goes to the case and knows the defendant, it is the member’s duty to remove himself/herself from the case.

The majority of the cases they hear in Youth Court are petit larceny and unlawful possession of marijuana or alcohol.

But, they could be dealing with some pretty serious stuff sometimes, Chetney said.

If Youth Court does its job, then these kids are more likely to stay out of trouble when they get older. If you make an impression on them now, there’s a good chance they won’t wind up back in the system later, he explained.

There is a variety of sentences Youth Court judges can hand down. The most common is basic community service. There can be a maximum of 70 hours of regular community service. Other sentences include letters of apology and restitution.

The defense and prosecution each recommend a sentence and after the opening and closing arguments and judges’ questions. Then, everyone leaves the courtroom while the two side judges and the chief judge deliberate, Chetney explained.

Sentences are based on attitude of the defendant, age, outside circumstances, punishment received at home, and what was done to make up for his/her actions.

When a defendant reaches the age of 16, the Youth Bureau shreds the court files and the person’s record is clean, he noted.

The goal of Youth Court is to get the offenders on the right path so they are more likely not to commit another crime.

Youth Court is a system, backed by police, where juvenile offenders who have committed a minor crime and have admitted their guilt are tried by their peers in a court of law, Chetney explained.

The advantages of Youth Court would be that defendants don’t have to pay lawyer fees, there is no record kept on file, and the most punishment they can have is several hours of community service and possibly reparation fees, he noted.

Offenders can come from anywhere in Oswego County. Referrals come from the New York State Police, Oswego County Sheriff’s Department, City of Oswego Police Department, Oswego County Probation, Fulton City Police Department and schools.

If someone decides they don’t want to go through Youth Court, their case is kicked back to the arresting officer and then Family Court.

For more information, contact the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau at 349-3451 or 1-800-596-3200 ext. 3451.