Warren County Youth Court offers students unique experience

Izzy Gaspar’raj | The Chronicle

Student jurors deliver sanctions for the prosecuted juvenile after deliberating and choosing the sanctions themselves.

Not many students know what it is like to go to court and be prosecuted as a juvenile, but even fewer know what it is like to be a prosecutor.

Students do not normally have the power to prosecute and defend one another, but the Warren County Juvenile Court’s Youth Court program is giving high school students the opportunity to do so. Every few weeks, high school students who were chosen through application to participate in the program appear at and participate in a hearing of a juvenile offender. These students from numerous different districts fill the roles of juror, prosecutor, defense attorney, bailiff and even judge. 

Judge Joseph Kirby is the presiding judge at the Warren County Juvenile Court and decided to establish his Youth Court program as a way of implementing a meaningful program into the court. To develop his program, he first looked at Youth Court programs in other states to see which features he wanted to include in the one he was creating. He decided to establish a “total” youth court, in which every role in the courtroom is filled by a high school student, with only himself or a few adult lawyers sitting beside youth lawyers to help them at certain points. Kirby said that he had some personal motivation in play when creating this program, as he rarely sees the students in the area that are not tried in his court, and he wanted to meet these other teenagers in the area.

“There’s a lot of great kids in this county,” Kirby said. “I just don’t ever get to see them because they don’t do anything delinquent to come in front of me. [Youth Court] brings in great kids. They’re smart. They’re the future leaders. We may have a budding lawyer or judge in the midst of us. It really [has done] me a good service to see some of the good kids as opposed to just seeing the delinquent kids all of the time.”

Warren County’s Juvenile Court allows some less severe cases to be diverted to the Youth Court program. In the juvenile justice system, the diversion program allows juveniles who have committed a crime to avoid taking part in traditional juvenile proceedings. In the Youth Court program, those juveniles who have pleaded guilty to their crimes can be heard in front of a jury of high-schoolers. After hearing the case, the jury then presents a penalty for the offender. Kirby said that, when a juvenile is diverted to the Youth Court program, it gives the offender the legal opportunity to remove the case from their record.

As a rule within the diversion program, youth juries cannot sentence the prosecuted juvenile to a detention facility. For the case to be successfully dismissed, the offender must follow through with the sanctions given by the jury. Otherwise, the case will be placed back into the traditional court’s docket. In addition, the adults in the courtroom can also tweak the jury’s final decision in cases where they feel the sanctions given may not be age-appropriate for the juvenile.

“It’s kind of a huge break you get as a juvenile, to receive diversion through your court,” Kirby said. “[Our] obstacle is finding the right case that’s worthy of it.”

Freshman Khusbu Patel participated in the Youth Court program in the first semester of the 2021-22 school year and was a juror for most of the cases as well as a prosecutor once. She said she felt that, because the prosecuted juvenile was near the same age as her and the other youth presiding in the court, they could give educated sanctions from their ability to relate to others’ their age’s experiences.

“As kids, we understand the mental health issue part of it,” Patel said. “We understand why you may do some stupid stuff-–these are people like us who can mess up.”

Patel said that, though she enjoyed both roles she filled in the courtroom, she found that the prosecutor job was more fun because she got to speak in front of the courtroom and utilize critical thinking skills. Despite her enjoyment, she also found that the role was very nerve-wracking, as it was in a very professional setting. She said that being a prosecutor was “a lot of fake it until you make it” and that she was shaking from her nerves.

Kirby said he has learned a great deal from observing the kids in Youth Court, as some sanctions that juries have recommended have surprised him. In one instance, a jury ended up giving the prosecuted juvenile a sanction in which the accused had to write a ‘Letter to Future Self’, in the case that they were about to do something similar again. Kirby was very impressed with this and decided to add it to his list of possible Youth Court sanctions. Kirby said that the penalties youth juries have given out have given him a new perspective on what sanctions will help juveniles who get in trouble.

“[They] don’t think community service is really effective,” Kirby said. “They’re more in tune with what kids need more than I am; it’s really fascinating to watch.”

According to Kirby, the lawyers that help with the Youth Court cases have told Kirby that they wish they had a program similar to this when they were young, because learning the mechanics of a courtroom as a student would have given them a large advantage when going to college or entering the work field. Though Kirby has been serving in his court since 2013, he said that observing the participants in Youth Court has provided him with a learning experience as to why juvenile criminals may do the things they do.

“[The participants] remind me how difficult it is to judge their own peers,” Kirby said. “Sometimes that makes me feel a little bit better because there’s no way I’m going to be able to understand what a 15-year-old is thinking.”

Freshman Shukti Chakraborty also participated in the program this past semester as a prosecutor and a juror and said that her previous interest in law led her to apply to the program. Chakraborty said that her interest in law has increased after taking part in the Youth Court program. She greatly enjoyed the atmosphere and said she feels more prepared now, having a better idea of what to expect in a courtroom after participating in the program.

“I did it for a solid half-hour and it was terrifying,” Chakraborty said. “To think of how you have to do that every day for a while is pretty scary, but kind of fun.”

Especially for young people, a court can be an unfamiliar and uncomfortable setting. Kirby believes that Youth Court offers an opportunity to students to “see the court process in a positive light”. Through the program Kirby created, he said that students get an intimidation-free opportunity that gives them real-world experience and even encourages them to possibly become a judge or lawyer someday.

“It gives them a chance to be a part of the solution,” Kirby said. “We can all complain about what’s wrong with our society, but we have to be able to be the ones to step in and solve it. And sometimes solving it is giving the remedy that’s going to stop that kind of behavior. So, be part of the solution.”

Photo by Izzy Gaspar’raj