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Inside a jail for kids in Louisiana: A 360-degree experience

This Brooklyn court helps kids stay out of jail—and it's run entirely by teenagers

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Faith Garrett, an 18-year-old from East New York, attended her first college course in upstate New York last month — something she says wouldn’t have been possible if it weren’t for Brownsville Youth Court.

The Brownsville Youth Court hears low-level cases for first-time offenders between 10 and 18, like Garrett, who was arrested for stealing an umbrella. And unlike regular court, the jurors, judges, and attorneys, too, are all kids.

The members of the court, who come from area high schools and community organizations, are between the ages of 14 and 18. They undergo 40 hours of training, culminating in a mock “bar exam,” before they’re allowed to hear their peers’ cases — a service for which the young court volunteers receive a small monthly stipend.

Garrett says she was initially suspicious about her case being overseen by a court of fellow teenagers.

“I got nervous because I didn’t know the kids, and I didn’t want the kids to judge me,” she said. “But when they started asking the questions, they were trying to help me.”

Misdemeanor cases are referred to the court at the discretion of schools, the police, or the city’s probation department. Adult staffers closely follow each case and report back to the “referral source” after the child offenders have served their “sanction,” which entails community service, written apologies, or counseling. Youth court, unlike the normal juvenile justice process, doesn’t send kids to jail.

The Brownsville program is one of more than 1,000 youth court diversion programs across the country that aim to keep first-time offenders out of the court system. That’s no small thing: Numerous studies show entry into the criminal courts, no matter how small the reason, increases a child’s odds of committing more serious crimes down the road. One study found that children who were referred to youth court were significantly less likely to be recycled into to the juvenile system for new offenses. While estimates vary, sending a kid to youth court costs about $500 — a sweet deal for taxpayers, who can dole out between $2,000 and $5,500 dollars for criminal juvenile proceedings.

Unlike the normal juvenile justice process, kid “respondents” like Garrett leave youth court with clean records, greatly increasing their chances of getting jobs and going to college.

More than 2,000 kids are arrested each year all over Brooklyn, most for non-violent offenses. Since launching in 2011, the Brownsville court has heard 353 cases. Sharese Crouther, one of the founders and planner of the court’s community initiatives, has been there for every single one of them. Crouther has trained all 156 teenagers who have served in the Brownsville court as the jurors, judges, and attorneys since 2011.

“For Faith, youth court made it all personal to her. It didn’t feel like just another docket number, something that’s being processed along,” said Crouther of Garrett’s trial. “The court’s questions were personal to her, and personal to her circumstance. So that made her feel like someone really cared enough about her situation.”

After Garrett wrote an apology and worked in a soup kitchen — fulfilling the court’s “sentence” — it was Crouther who encouraged her to become part of the program. She served most often as a juror or a “community advocate” which would be similar to a prosecutor in regular court. Garrett says Crouther became a mentor and friend who eventually helped her turn her life around, helping her apply to scholarships and jobs.

“I’ve matured over the years,” Garrett said. “It feels good that I got a second chance and to have actually learned from it.”

Additional production by Brendan Finn and Chelsea Wei

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