Youth Court

Youth Court is a program driven by student volunteers who lead all aspects of court operations. Probation, police departments, and schools refer cases to the Youth Court; approximately 65% of referrals are drug- and alcohol-related.

Juveniles participating in the program (or "clients") work with a jury of peers to reflect on the poor choices that got them into trouble and craft a restorative plan that repairs the harm caused to others, the community, and themselves.

A Restorative Plan that Works

Clients must also participate on future juries and engage in community activities as part of their restorative plan. Successful completion of the program results in the juvenile’s record being cleared. In addition, each participant must complete 12 hours of harm reduction-focused drug and alcohol training, including six hours with a parent/caregiver. Having this safety net for youth in the early stages of criminal behavior can help them turn the corner onto a new path and a successful future.

With a 98% completion rate and only 7% recidivism, this innovative program has helped keep over 1,300 youth in school, restoring hope for their future.

What is the School to Prison Pipeline?

Young people, particularly young people of color, paid a steep price when our country’s schools joined the so-called “war on drugs” and implemented zero tolerance policies in the 1990’s following the Columbine massacre. Suspensions exploded, and thousands of teens were pushed out of school and into the juvenile justice system.

Youth Advocate Training

Students are trained to be jurors, bailiffs, and advocates, preparing them to participate in the Marin County Youth Court program. The strong youth development foundation of this program encourages critical thinking and develops emotional intelligence and leadership skills that increase the odds for success as a young adult.

Jury members are trained to identify their own implicit bias’ and work to question them based on curiosity rather than judgment. They are trained to use motivational interview techniques to identify client strengths. Advocates are reminded to look beyond the traditional punitive mindset. 

“I believe restorative justice has contributed to our historically low juvenile incarceration rate. It’s a healthy way to resolve conflicts.” - Mike Daly, Marin Chief of Probation

Photo Credit: Marin Independent Journal

Why are Students Becoming First-Time Offenders?

Simply put, students break the law for the first time when one to all of these challenges are present in their life: 

School Climate

A poor school climate would include school culture, classroom management, and teacher/student relationships. 

Social Emotional Health

Poor emotional health is reflected in students' and adults' social and emotional skills displayed at school.  


Students, families, and communities deal with complex trauma, like behavioral and physical health challenges. This trauma can be present and compounded over generations.

Implicit Bias

Implicit bias refers to the attitudes or stereotypes that affect our understanding, actions, and decisions in an unconscious manner. These biases can be present in the educational system.

How to Successfully Navigate the Risk-Taking Years

Many youth are engaged in high levels of alcohol and drug experimentation. While substance use can be common during the teen years, with guidance, the dangers of experimentation can be mitigated. 

Our Harm Reduction approach to addressing teen substance use gives parents and youth an effective platform for having real discussions about what teens are facing in their risk-taking years (12-25 years old). We help establish a safe space for parents to listen to their own children’s reflections on the drug and alcohol landscape they are experiencing. This approach creates a productive and open discussion about the effects of substances on the developing brain and the best ways for teenagers to keep each other safe during their risk-taking years.

Alternatives to Suspensions

By providing an alternative to suspensions, we can significantly increase the odds that our most vulnerable students will remain connected to their school communities, ultimately graduating and becoming productive citizens.

Restorative circles insure students take responsibility for their actions and are accountable to the victim and the school community. In doing so, the student’s success rate improves dramatically and the school climate becomes healthier.

Examples of restorative consequences include:

[photo series below]

School-Based Community Service

“Positive school climates not only minimize unnecessary suspensions and expulsions, but also reduce disorder in the classroom and bolster learning.” 
– Arne Duncan, Former U.S. Secretary of Education

Letters of Apology

Community Building Circles provide the foundation for developing positive school culture. Research shows this process increases school connectedness and results in higher scores in language and reading as well as overall GPA. 

Reflective Essays

Reading proficiency is a major indicator of school success. Data shows that children who cannot read by the third grade are four times less likely to graduate than students who can. Failing to graduate is a high predictor for contact with the juvenile justice system and incarceration as an adult. Sixty-eight percent of men behind bars did not complete high school. 


Kids can’t learn if they don’t show up. Youth who have a positive relationship with an adult are five times more likely to graduate.

Supporting other Students in the Program

Becoming an advocate and serving on future juries is the final step to completing the Youth Court program. 

When the student has successfully completed the program, the suspension is removed from their school record. Strategies employed in the early school years help students learn a variety of skills to address conflict, create a school culture of accountability, and prevent young people from entering the juvenile justice system.

Stats Don't Lie

Since implementing suspension alternatives through the eight county middle and high schools, we are now in all the middle and high schools in the San Rafael city school system and have seen a 33% decrease in suspensions at Davidson Middle School.

"It has been nothing short of amazing to see the transformation in the youth we have worked with. It would not have been possible without all the support we’ve received from county and local governments, professionals, administrators, donors, and the hundreds of volunteer hours from youth and professionals alike. Thank you." - Don Carney, Restorative Services & Marin County Youth Court Director

Support this Initiative 

The Youth Court does not stand alone, and in 2010, it became the flagship under a larger Restorative Solutions platform that reflects the importance of preventative interventions upstream. Today, we offer middle and high school alternatives to suspension. Our truancy prevention programs focus on increasing reading comprehension by the 3rd grade (a strong indicator of future school success) and are working on improving school culture by implementing relationship-centered school community-building circles.

Along with the national restorative justice movement,  we want to see programs like ours replicated throughout the country and are inviting interested YMCA programs to join us.