OSWEGO, NY – Twenty-four students from around the county were sworn in recently as the newest members of Oswego County’s Youth Court.
Family Court Judge Kim Seager administered the oath at the Oswego County Courthouse 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 one of the program’s coordinators, Brian Chetney of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau. He shares duties with Dawn Metott.
It’s is a national program that is nearly 40 years old.
Oswego’s is the second oldest program in New York State of New York, Kathleen Fenlon, executive director of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, told the large crowd attending the induction ceremony.
“Oswego’s Youth Court has been around since the 1980s,” she said. “It was one of the few such programs in the country. Since that time youth courts have spread throughout the country. Now you’ll find hundreds of youth courts in the United States. The reason for that is that it works.”
Research has shown that youth who go through the Youth Court process “are very unlikely” to be repeat offenders, she pointed out.
The program gives young offenders who stay out of trouble “a fresh start,” she said.
Youth Court handles about 50 cases a year, Fenlon said. It teaches young people a lot about fairness, she said. The court handles cases of youth from age 7 to 15, she added.
“I go to work with a smile on my face every day because of the great work these kids do,” she said.
Several court members held a mock trial to show the public what takes place during a Youth Court session.
The youth who were sworn in and their school districts are:
Jade Ballard, Jenna Ballard, Tiffany Billington, Caitlin Cole, Abigail Donahue, Olivia Flint, Braeden Livesey, Bradley Lupien, Cheyanne Maland, Tianna Moxley, Haleigh Rahn, Elaine Rando and Ryan Smith all of Oswego; Lucas Clark, Jeffrey Lawson and Genesis Loetterle of Fulton; Ac Bowman and Cody Lawson of Phoenix; Josh Cutillo, Alyssa Facteau and Kaitlyn Linerode of Mexico; Jacklyn Foster of Pulaski; Jessica Maslak of Central Square; and Madison Levea of Hannibal.
Congratulating the new members was Oswego County Legislature Terry Wilbur, a Youth Court alumni. He presented Fenlon with a county proclamaition designating September as Youth Court Monnth in the county.
Youth Court is a valuable resource; even many of the people who have gone through the court have respect for it, Wilber said.
It brought back some very fond memories, Wilbur said of attending the ceremony.
He congratulated the graduates on passing their bar exam.
He said he dreaded that exam – worse than some of his regents and final exams at college.
Judge Seager cited the positive work being done by the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, and addressed the class after the swearing in ceremony.
Day in and day out she deals with a host of problems concerning youth in the Family Court system, she told the graduates.
“It is much more enjoyable to recognize young people for jobs well done,” she said.
Besides the financial savings, Youth Court also saves time, she said.
“Youth Court is a very useful and valuable service,” she said. “It keeps kids from ending up in the juvenile justice system.”
She also recognized the parents in the audience.
“You’ve done a great job raising these kids,” she said. “This program is helpful to me; it cuts down on the case load in Family Court.”
She told the parents, that if their kids don’t feel like fulfilling their obligation to Youth Court to “remind them of their commitment. They can make a difference. Thank you for sharing your children with us.”
The judge then told the graduates to “always ask why. Always look to see why this behavior is going on and how you can make a positive change (in the life of a youthful offender).”
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.
“Anything greater than a misdemeanor cannot be given to us,” he added.
Hearings are conducted and punishments are imposed.
“Youth Court holds offenders accountable for their actions,” Fenlon said.
In the Youth Court process, there are a variety of sentences that can be imposed; the most common include community service, writing letters of apology and restitution, Metott said.
Others include educational projects and informational videos.
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 Youth Court process is strictly confidential.
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.
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, Central Square Village Police and all nine school districts.
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 on the program, call the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau at 349-3451 or 1-800-596-3200 ext. 3451.