OSWEGO, NY – Seventeen students from around the county were sworn in on Sept. 22 as the newest members of Oswego County’s Youth Court. Not all of them were able to attend the ceremony.
Oswego County Family Court Judge Kim Seager administered the oath at the Oswego County Courthouse on Oneida Street as members of the graduates’ families looked on, many of them taking photographs.
Youth Court is a recognized community diversion program aimed at keeping young offenders out of Family Court, according to Brian Chetney, director of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau.
It’s a national program that is about 40 years old; it’s 32 years old this year in Oswego County, he said.
Oswego’s is the second oldest program in New York State, he added.
Oswego’s Youth Court has been around since the mid 1980s and was one of the few such programs in the country. As of December, there were more than 70 Youth Courts operating in New York State alone.
Over the years, the program has spread throughout the country, “The reason for that is that it works,” according to Sam Crisafulli, Youth Court coordinator. “It started as a diversion program for Family Court.”
The goal of Youth Court is not just to punish the offenders, but to teach them a lesson and hopefully not get into trouble again, he explained.
Research has shown that youth who go through the Youth Court process “are very unlikely” to be repeat offenders.
The program gives young offenders who stay out of trouble “a fresh start,” Chetney said.
Youth Court handles about 40 to 50 cases a year. It teaches young people a lot about fairness, he added.
The court handles cases of youth from age 7 to 18.
Legislator Linda Lockwood, vice chair of the Oswego County Legislature, praised the Youth Court members for their hard word and dedication.
She encouraged the new members to “listen to all sides” of the case so they can make responsible decisions.
“Youth Court not only holds youthful offenders responsible for their actions, it actually saves Oswego County money by keeping many cases out of family court,” she said. “I want to thank you all very much for participating in the program. I also want to recognize the parents.”
“The Youth Court program benefits Oswego County in so many ways,” Chetney agreed.
It eases the financial burden on Family Court; it educates not only the members but also the offenders who have an opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system, be judged by their peers and be held accountable for their crimes, he explained.
Seager praised the members of Youth Court for reaching out to make a difference.
“You’re doing something extra to make a positive difference in your community,” she told them. “Being (a Youth Court member) is more than just judging. It’s reaching out to help the young person make better choices in the future; those kinds of opportunities are hard to come by.”
Several court members held a mock trial to show the public what takes place during a Youth Court session.
Offenders can be referred through several agencies, Crisafulli said, including: Oswego and Fulton PD, New York State Police, Oswego County Sheriff’s Department, Probation Department, town and village police departments as well as local school districts and the Department of Social Services.
Youth can be sent to the program for crimes such as unlawful possession of marijuana, disorderly conduct, petit larceny, trespass, making graffiti, criminal mischief and others.
Community service hours are the most likely sentence. Others include writing a letter of apology or essay, restitution, attending programs at Farnham and others.
All facets of the cases are held in strict confidentiality.
Youth Court isn’t a fact-finding court, according to Chetney.
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.
Overall, 93 percent of the Youth Courts are “punishment only” – requiring youth offenders to admit guilt before assigning sanctions.
“Anything greater than a misdemeanor cannot be given to us,” he added.
Hearings are conducted and punishments are imposed.
Youth Court members are trained to become judges, defense attorneys, prosecutors and court clerks. Sixteen members are assigned a case; eight of them are potential substitutes in case someone can’t make it. Also, if one of the members knows the defendant, a different court member is assigned.
The average amount of training for members is 10 hours. Oswego County Youth Court members receive more than 20 hours of training.
The goal of Youth Court is to prevent kids from continuing the behavior that got them in trouble in the first place.
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, Chetney said.
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, Metott added.
The purpose of the sentence is to deter the defendants from committing further crimes.
When a defendant reaches the age of 16 (and they’ve stayed out of trouble), the Youth Bureau shreds the court files and the person’s record is clean.
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.
The youth who were sworn in are:
Gretchen Arnold, Mary Margaret Buske and Taylor Elowsky of Mexico; Hunter Bell and Kelsie Burgess of Phoenix; Nolan Callahan, Vanessa Flint, Avalon Photos, Kaitlyn Strong and Mattie Wallace of Oswego; Karli Hanna, Anthony Lucas, Abigail Lunderman, Hannah Overton and Nick Riciputo of Fulton; and Caroline Harrington and Harley Sgarlata of Pennellville.
“This is a great responsibility that you have taken and I thank you,” Chetney told the new members. “On behalf of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau – congratulations and good luck!”
For more information on the program, call the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau at 349-3451 or 1-800-596-3200 ext. 3451.