CityNew York

The Brooklyn Criminal Court Ran by Teenagers!

If you were a teenager who committed a misdemeanor crime, would you prefer for your case to be heard in a court among your peers or in a traditional criminal court?

For 18-year-old East New York resident Faith Garrett, a first-time offender who committed a misdemeanor crime of stealing an umbrella, having her case go to Brownsville Youth Court changed her life.

The Brownsville Youth Court hears low-level cases for first-time offenders between the ages of 10 and 18. The jurors, judges and attorneys are all between the ages of 14 and 18 who come from area high schools and community organizations. They have 40 hours of training and at the end, take a mock “bar exam” before being allowed to hear the cases of their peers. The young volunteers are given a small monthly stipend as well.

At first, Garrett was suspicious of case seen by fellow teenagers.

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

The Brownsville Youth Court hears misdemeanor cases that are referred at the discretion of schools, the police or the city’s probation department. The cases are closely monitored by adult staffers who report back to the “referral source” after the child offenders have served their “sanction” which includes community service, written apologies or counseling. Youth court does not send kids to jail.

This program is among the more than 1, 000 youth court diversion programs across the country which aim to keep first-time offenders out of the court system. Studies have shown once a child is entered into the court system, regardless of how serious the offense, they increase their odds of committing more serious crimes down the road. Students who were referred to youth court, were less likely to commit crimes in the future. Like Garrett, they leave court with clean records and increase their chances of going to college and getting jobs. She just attended her first college class in upstate New York last month.

Since its launch in 2011, the Brownsville Youth Court has heard 353 cases, and its founder, Sharon Crouther, has been there for all of them and has trained the 156 teenagers who are jurors, judges and attorneys.

“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.”

Garrett was “sentenced” to work in a soup kitchen and was encouraged by Crouther to join the Brownsville Youth Court. She serves a juror and “community advocate,” which is similar to a prosecutor.

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

Brittney Fennell

Brittney Fennell

Brittney is the Associate Editor of Jawbreaker and a writer who has goals to disrupt culture in ways unseen.