This past January, four Sag Harbor youths were arrested and charged with making graffiti in the village.
But instead of attending Family Court and going through a routine probationary process, they went to Youth Court, where their cases will be heard not only by a jury of their peers, but by a bench of legal council and even a judge who’s still a teen.
Sag Harbor Village Detective Jeff Proctor said he wasn’t aware Youth Court was an option until an attorney for one of the youths involved in the graffiti incident recommended it.
“This is actually good for us,” he said. “For many years, there have been crimes committed by 13-, 14- and 15-years olds that aren’t severe enough for Family Court [because they are only violations], but they shouldn’t go unnoticed. This gives kids some type of consequence for their actions.”
According to Sag Harbor Village Police Chief Tom Fabiano, this is the first time that a case that’s originated in the village has gone to Youth Court.
He said the police department has tried to make use of the youth court in the past, but the partnership has not always panned out. For one thing, all misdemeanors are first sent to Family Court before they are considered for Youth Court. And as for violations, for which the department itself can send a child to Youth Court, parental consent is required.
“That’s the part I’ve ben trying to work with the police department on,” said Karen Hurst of the Southampton Town Youth Bureau who runs the Youth Court. She said arrests are quite tricky when it comes to children under the age of 16. In fact, minors cannot technically be charged with violations.
“But, if we get the parents’ consent, then [the kids] can come through the Youth Court,” she continued. “For example, if they have marijuana”—possession of marijuana is a violation—“an officer can say: We have this program available. That way, the kids are still being held accountable.”
Previously, Fabiano said juveniles arrested in Sag Harbor, ended up being sent to probation through Family Court Intake in Riverhead. But, the department is making more of a concerted effort to utilize the teen court system.
“I hear a lot of good things about your court, because kids are judging other kids,” Fabiano said. “And they’re learning how the judicial system works.”
The Youth Court combines a range of participants stretching from Westhampton
“Youth Court is not mock trial,” Hurst explained. “The kids are looking at actual court cases.”
The way it works is there are kids who are involved in learning how the court system functions, and then there are youths who have committed a crime—either a violation or a minor misdemeanor (like making graffiti)—whose cases can be brought to Youth Court.
The kids who are participating in the Youth Court educational program take a 12-week training course with attorney Kevin Gilvary, through which they learn about the judicial system by reviewing actual court cases, and ultimately participating in Youth Court trials. Three students each will play the roles of prosecution and defense attorneys, and one student will even act as the judge presiding over the court proceedings.
To prepare for trial, Hust said the kids study different cases, practice their own depositions and even learn how to present opening and closing arguments. They even study different ways of administering consequences for certain actions.
“They have a lot of freedom with it,” she explained. Previous “sentences” have involved volunteer work, writing and art projects that benefit the community.
“They take it very, very seriously because they know it’s one of their peers sitting there,” Hurst commented. “These are real cases, we’re working with real kids’ lives,” she continued. “I stress that to the kids all the time: If you were the one sitting in the respondents’ chair, how would you want your attorney to be acting?”