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Youth Court in Portland, Yarmouth aims to repair wrongs, not punish kids

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Youth Court in Portland, Yarmouth aims to repair wrongs, not punish kids

YARMOUTH — A program in Maine is helping first-time juvenile offenders avoid the traditional justice system and repair any harm they've done to the community.

The program, called Youth Court, is appearing around the country in an effort to provide what is known as "restorative" justice.

In Maine's system, two teams of volunteer students hear cases in Portland and Yarmouth. Ryun Anderson, director of Youth MOVE Maine, which runs the program, said the organization receives referrals from the Department of Corrections, schools, police departments and the court system, most commonly for small crimes like theft, vandalism and possession of drugs or alcohol.

“The idea is that it has to be a first-time, non-violent offense,” Anderson said. “(The respondents) are not deep into the corrections system. They are lower risk and the idea is to prevent them from being deeper in trouble.”

Anderson said the Youth Court program is an alternative to expulsion or suspension from school, and to traditional criminal sentencing for young people who have committed a first-time crime. The goal, she said, is to redirect negative behavior into something positive for the community.

“The Youth Court model that we have developed is focused on restorative practices,” Anderson said. “That means we are not looking always at a crime being something against a law or a rule, but when a crime happens, it has been done to another person and relationships have been harmed, and obligations exist from that harm.”

She said Youth Court volunteers are trained to understand the perspective of the juvenile who got in trouble, the community members, and of the victims, and to look the obligations to repair the harm.

Anderson said the program can work wherever there is a challenge in connecting community with youth who get into trouble for the first time.

“The process right now is they get in trouble and are connected with a (juvenile corrections officer) and they would get a suspension or some more traditional sanctions and then they would just move on,” she said. “The young people were saying that they don't learn from that experience and they don't get connected to the community. (We felt) there could be a better way.”

Another unique aspect of the program is that the Youth Court system is essentially run by students.

Three student advocates, chosen from students in local school systems, represent the community, the respondent and the victim, while a team of three students are the  judges.

Dispositions from the student judges can range from writing a letter of apology to community service, depending on the severity of the crime committed.

“There is a whole process that we have in choosing our dispositions, and it is really making sure that you are repairing the harm to the community and really working on (the offenders),” said Grace Mallett, a junior at Yarmouth High School who is one of the Youth Court participants.

Mallett said an example of a disposition could be allowing a student with an interest in lacrosse to volunteer with a youth lacrosse program, so that they are using a skill set they already have to give back to the community.

“It is not a punishment," Mallett said. "It is something to help the individual heal."

In order to participate on the Youth Court, the volunteer students must attend a summer training session, which often changes the perspective of those volunteers.

Charlotte Eisenberg of Peaks Island, a sophomore at North Yarmouth Academy, said she was at first resistant to the notion of restorative justice when she attended her training session last summer, but she came around to the concept once she learned how the Youth Court operates.

“I thought, 'why aren't they getting in trouble, they did something wrong, shouldn't they get in trouble?' and I didn't care to associate myself with people who were getting in trouble, because I thought it would make me look bad,” Eisenberg said.

“(But) Youth Court doesn't change that these things are wrong – I still feel that you shouldn't steal or abuse drugs – but it is more of a situation where I want to help and listen to the facts," she said. "I have more of an urge to understand and help, whereas before I just wanted to distance myself.”

Eisenberg explained that after respondents receive their disposition from the Youth Court, they are connected with a peer mentor who guides them to community-service opportunities and deals with the logistics of setting up work hours. The respondents then have three months to complete the prescribed sentence.

Mike Freysinger, restorative practices program manager for Youth MOVE Maine, said that after their three-month stint is complete, respondents come back to the Youth Court to report on how the process was for them.

“We invite each of them to come back and go through a training to possibly be a youth advocate,” he said. “We haven't gotten any yet, but that would be a really cool full-circle process.”

Freysinger is working on developing a third branch of the Youth Court system in the Bath-Brunswick area, and he said there has been a lot of support in the area from parents and administrators.

“Often times I hear back that this is such an amazing program, and parents ask why don't all kids have to go through this when they get in trouble for the first time?” he said.

An added reward is that the program not only benefits those who are find themselves in trouble for the first time, but the people who are involved in their sentencing process.

Both Mallett and Eisenberg said they have gained a greater understanding of, and have more sympathy for, individuals going through the court process than they did before their Youth Court training.

“Before, I would look at these scenarios and it was very black and white,” Mallett said. “But now that I have been through Youth Court, I see everything about the situation, how many different factors there are going into an incident like that, and repairing the incident.”

The program is really about this connection, Anderson said. It is about how the community, the victim and the respondent can move on from the harm that was done.

“We really want to make sure the focus of our Youth Court is on the community change that is happening,” she said. “The change is happening for the students, for community members and the kids who are getting in trouble."