OSWEGO, NY – Twelve students from around the county were sworn in Thursday night 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, the acting director of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau.
Dawn Metott of the Youth Bureau is the Youth Court coordinator.
Youth Court is a national program that is nearly 40 years old.
Oswego’s is the second oldest program in New York State; Oswego’s Youth Court has been around since the 1980s and was one of the few such programs in the country. It is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.
Over the years, the program has spread throughout the country.
“You’ll find hundreds of youth courts all around the United States,” Oswego County Family Court Judge Kim Seager told Oswego County Today prior to the ceremony. “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.
The program gives young offenders who stay out of trouble “a fresh start,” she said.
Youth Court handles about 40 to 50 cases a year, Metott said. It teaches young people a lot about fairness, she added.
The court handles cases of youth from age 7 to 16.
“The Youth Court program benefits Oswego County in so many ways,” Chetney said.
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.
“Tonight, we have a group of inductees – your children – who gave up a week of their summer to take on the responsibility of Youth Court,” he told the large crowd packed into the courtroom of the county courthouse on Oneida Street. “These are our future leaders. Past Youth Court members have gone on to be lawyers, teachers, government officials (such as Terry Wilbur, vice chairman of the Oswego County Legislature) and more.”
“This is a great responsibility that you have taken and I thank you,” Chetney told the dozen new members. “On behalf of the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau – congratulations and good luck!”
The youth who were sworn in and their school districts are:
Alyssa Beck of Hannibal, Taber Carter of Hannibal, Claudia Chetney of Oswego, Laurin Furlong of Oswego, Jacob Gerber of Oswego, Michael Gerth of Fulton, Sage Hourihan of Fulton, Julia Ludington of Fulton, Brianna McIntosh of Oswego, Lauren Nichols of Fulton, Timothy McAfee of Fulton, and Jerrett Dudley of Oswego.
“The Oswego Youth Court is one of the oldest youth courts there is,” County Legislature John Brandt said. “We’ve got a great history here.”
He said it was “very refreshing” to see a group of young people step up and take responsibility to do something to benefit the entire community.
“As time goes on in your life, I think you will find you learned a lot of things here that will help you make good decisions in the future,” he told the inductees. “I am very pleased to see a number of parents here with their children, the new members of Youth Court.”
“Youth Court is an amazing program,” Michael Gerth said following being sworn in. “It lightens the burden on Family Court. It helps get young offenders back on track to become good citizens. And, it basically helps the entire community.”
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, Metott 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.
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, she explained.
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. And, if the offender stays out of trouble, their file is shredded when they turn 16.
Judge Seager cited the positive work being done by the Oswego City-County Youth Bureau, and addressed the class and their parents after the swearing in ceremony.
“I want to thank each and every one of you. As parents you have really given a gift to the community that we all so appreciate. That is the time and energy of these young people. Every moment you have with your children is valuable; and you are sharing that time with Oswego County.”
Day in and day out she deals with a host of problems concerning youth in the Family Court system, she told the graduates.
“One of the reasons why this program is so important ot me personally is because it really does save, in addition to the value of the education that your young people get and that the offender gets, it saves our community a lot,” she pointed out. “It saves me the time that I would otherwise dedicate to hearing the cases. It leaves for me the time to really deal with the more difficult cases.”
Being a judge is not a ‘judgmental’ task, she noted. “Help the person by putting yourself in their shoes, understand where they come from and make a difference by giving out the kinds of sentences that will actually help them be a better person. Punishment is a wonderful thing if it’s going to accomplish a whole lot. Keep that lesson in mind and think of the value that you can share with your peers and help them to become better citizens.”
The judge 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 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.
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.