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Youth Court offers Restorative Solutions for the family

“He is a good kid. Sometimes they just make bad choices.”- Romina, mother of a Youth Court program respondent.

Like many parents, Romina did not realize how much trouble surrounded her son until she got a call from his high school. They had caught her son with marijuana on school property. She immediately went to the school, concerned about what would happen next.

Remnants from the zero tolerance era have allowed middle and high schools to use suspension, detention and expulsion if a student breaks any rule. Once a child is out of school, not only is it hard to catch up academically, it may force working parents to leave their child at home alone during the suspension; which could lead to more delinquency while unsupervised. Romina’s son, Luigi, was referred to Marin County Youth Court, a program of the YMCA of San Francisco. The San Francisco Y’s Restorative Solutions program would offer Luigi the opportunity to reflect on his choices and craft a restorative plan to repair the harm he caused to his family and the community.

Youth Courts throughout the nation use the traditional adversarial “winner-loser” model. When this punitive method is aligned with zero tolerance policies in academic systems, a bigger issue emerges. A single offense can stain a child’s academic career and initiate a criminal record. This, in effect, is the School-To-Prison Pipeline that Restorative Solutions, the Y’s Youth Court program, are trying to end. These youth courts provide an alternative for schools, families and the community. The program uses civic engagement and peer participation as a method for creating a sustainable and fair justice system for more than our youth, it is also a vision for our nation’s criminal justice system.

“I’m always there as a parent. I am over-involved,” Romina laughs. After her son got caught by the school for bringing drugs on site, she immediately looked into group and family therapy. She wanted to know what to do, how to help him, and recalled not knowing what to expect taking Luigi to Youth Court for the first time. At first glance, the YMCA Youth Court Program in Marin looks like any other court. Until you notice the abundance of youth in positions of power.

“Parents can be skeptical about Youth Court until we tell them to come see it,” notes Antonio Zavala, one of the Restorative Justice Associates. Some parents have exhausted various programs to help their children by the time they get to Youth Court. The Y’s Youth Court program gives their child a community that supports them while holding them accountable and allows them to become a part of the Youth Court team. All offenders, who in this program are known as “respondents” must volunteer time to work as jurors in Youth Court as part of the program. 

The Program

The Restorative Solutions program is guided by trained youth volunteers who lead all court operations aside from the role of the judge. Any youth who commits a minor, nonviolent offense might be eligible to come before a jury of their peers rather than enter the mainstream punitive system. The young volunteers serve as bailiffs, community advocates and respondent advocates. The peer jury asks questions of the respondent to help them reflect on the choices they made that lead to breaking the law. The jury then crafts a restorative plan to repair the harm they caused and identify healthier outlets. Respondents must also perform community engagement activities as part of the restorative plan which typically take the form of a mix of jury duties, community engagement, individual support services and family support. Once completed, the crime is removed from the respondent’s record.

Romina and her son quickly realized this was not a usual courtroom. “I feel like it empowers them to take an active role in supporting their peers, and they have to acknowledge breaking the law. When they see the other youth, they know it’s not that bad because they will understand. It’s like they are supporting me. We know the purpose of the program is to build community and accountability,” Romina says.

Don Carney, Marin YMCA Director of Restorative Services at the Marin County Youth Court, wants to erase the School-to-prison pipeline with this program he started over 16 years ago. Offering schools an alternative to traditional methods of punishment within the justice system has been incredibly effective. Disciplinary reports in schools see a decrease - Davidson Middle School’s suspension rates fell by 33%. Don believes the pedagogy approach is a major piece to the program’s success. “People say empowering these kids with their own voice will change everything.” Don continues, “In the program we teach trauma informed care, non-adversarial and supportive roles. We want restorative approaches.”

Cases Continue Online

Even during this time of COVID-19, cases are still referred to Marin’s Youth Court, though now the sessions are held digitally. On a recent virtual panel, the youngest juror was 13, and the oldest was 21. The need for support is greater than ever as cases have increased by 185% this past year since the San Rafael Police Department closed its Youth Services Bureau. Not only is the caseload growing for Don and his team, but the program is expanding to Youth Courts around the Bay Area that look at the Y’s program as a primary model for adopting restorative practices.

Many city officials, not just the youth in these programs, have recognized how significant this program is for families and the community. Probation, police departments, and schools now refer cases to the Y’s Restorative Solutions program in Marin County. The overall goal is to expand the program throughout California, and the results back it up: the Y’s Restorative Solutions program in Youth Court is helping youth by providing a productive alternative.

It seems that anyone who becomes a part of the restorative justice process stays a part of it, and that is the overall goal. Many respondents who went through the program come back to volunteer and give back to their communities. The Y’s Youth Court encourages critical thinking, develops emotional intelligence, and promotes leadership skills. Perhaps more importantly, the program seeks to identify personal implicit biases and promotes jurors to question respondents based on curiosity rather than judgment. “This program makes a difference. It impacts lives. Respondents, advocates, and jurors learn so much about people and their experiences, and the way it affects the community,” Talia, one of the 15-year-old juror says after a court session. 

Families Stick Together

Romina believes their involvement with Youth Court was enlightening for Luigi, that it helped him see how easy it is to get in serious trouble, and respect alternative perspectives. Luigi served on the peer jury and became a respondent advocate. Like so many others who go through the program, he completed the program and was still drawn to Youth Court. He continued volunteering after he completed his resolution. “He kept going for over 2 years after finishing his resolution plan!” Romina proudly exclaims. Luigi’s family has embraced Youth Court, too. When his younger sister entered middle school, she started volunteering as a juror for Youth Court. Romina says she’s there every week. She volunteered in court this past year and is now taking part in the sessions virtually, as COVID-19 has moved the court sessions online.

“He’s a good boy. It was peer pressure, but sometimes when you follow your peers you get into trouble. This was his second year of high school. He was a kid.” Romina feels the program helps the community in many ways, but especially by giving youth a chance to do things differently than before by taking accountability and providing a way to restore what was harmed.

“This offers the directions they need at a time they need it the most. It shows them that it’s okay to make a mistake, but there are consequences. It’s an amazing program. Romina concludes.