Friday, January 21, 2022

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Article Index

B. Diverting Students from the Juvenile Justice System

Governments are also developing programs that divert students away from juvenile justice systems for disciplinary infractions. For example, in Orange County, New York, a young person who engages in a status offense such as truancy is no longer routed into the juvenile justice system.   Instead, a case manager works with the student and her family to develop a service plan that will connect them to useful social services. If the initial plan does not resolve the behavioral problems, the family "may be referred to longer-term therapeutic programs in the community."   This program has been incredibly successful in improving outcomes for young people. From March 2003 to March 2008, 98% of the children served by the program avoided out-of-home placements.   Other local governments should look for similar solutions that will keep students in school and out of the juvenile justice system.

In addition, many communities have developed youth courts (or peer courts) to handle delinquent behavior in schools and divert students away from juvenile justice systems.   In these programs, youth volunteers (under adult supervision) *1274 serve as prosecutors, defenders, clerks, juries, and sometimes judges.   The courts generally give sentences that focus on rehabilitation, including "essays, apologies to victims, workshops, or community service."   Youth courts also allow students to collaborate with one another to solve behavioral problems in their schools instead of meting out punitive and counterproductive sanctions.   These programs have become fairly widespread in recent years--over 116,000 cases were referred to youth courts in 2007.  

Empirical studies suggest that youth courts can be effective in changing student behavior. One study of youth in Missouri found that only 9% percent of young people who participated in the youth court reoffended within six months, compared to 28% of similar youth handled by the local family court.   Likewise, a study of youth courts in Lane County, Oregon, showed that 19.3% of young people who participated in youth courts reoffended within two years, whereas 29.3% of young people who received only a warning letter from Youth Services reoffended during that period.   These studies suggest that youth courts may be effective in reducing recidivism among youth who engage in disciplinary infractions and other delinquency.

Despite these promising statistics, however, one shortcoming of youth courts is that they are often reserved for first-time offenders. In a 1998 national study of youth courts, 39% of the surveyed programs accepted only first-time offenders, and another 48% "reported that they ‘rarely' accepted youth with prior arrest records."   Moreover, 91% of programs "indicated that they ‘never' or ‘rarely' accepted youth who previously had been referred to a juvenile court."   These practices are troubling considering that youth with prior records tend to receive harsher sanctions in the juvenile justice system.   Youth courts that exclude students with prior court involvement fail to provide a diversion option to those students who face the greatest risk of harsh sanctions. Yet this problem can be solved by including a wider range of students among those who are eligible to participate in youth-court programs. Local governments should *1275 take these steps and continue to establish effective and inclusive youth-court programs.

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