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SANDY — It's considered one of the most successful juvenile programs in the state: Youth Court. Organizers say it helps steer good kids away from a possibly bad direction.
Every other Tuesday, a jury made up of school-age kids gathers in a Sandy City court room and doles out punishment to other kids who've committed essentially petty crimes.
Sandy Police Lt. Justin Chapman says the students "on trial" aren't really bad kids, "but kind of a tipping point where they have that decision to make for the positive or negative,"
Youth Court is an alternative to the traditional juvenile justice system and school disciplinary proceedings. Youth who are referred for minor offenses and who admit their mistakes are sentenced by a panel of their peers.
Nationally the Youth Court system has impacted hundreds of thousands of youth:
- 110,000 - 125,000 youth offenders served each year
- 100,000 youth volunteers serve each year
- 1,255 youth courts in 49 states
- In the State of Utah there are currently 41 Youth Courts
For more information, visit youthcourts.utah.gov.
Take, for instance, the case of a 17-year-old who marked some graffiti underneath a bridge. He told his jury of peers he did it — admission of guilt is required in this court. He also told them he could do better.
But the jury also has its questions — for the teens involved in the crime and their parents too.
"Do you understand the contract or have any questions," one juror asked the 17-year-old and his parents.
Then the jury decides its punishment, or disposition as they call it. Usually community service, maybe an essay; in the case of the 17-year-old, it was a graffiti presentation in front of the Sandy City Council.
"Youth Court is set up for those individuals, those kids who are first-time offenders. They don't have a lengthy criminal history," Chapman said.
It's also an offense that stays off a kid's record.
Nick Pensari, a volunteer juror from Alta High School, said he wants to go to law school. But perhaps more importantly, he wants to be a mentor.
"I feel like kids my age get caught in binds, and I wanted to make it my job to help them out," Pensari said.
In the end, the criminal offenders get one shot at Youth Court. If they don't finish their community service, or they get in trouble again, they can find themselves in juvenile court — where the punishment can be a little tougher.