Peer review: Youth Court allows teens to decide punishment

All eyes of the jury are on him. The pressure is on for the victim advocate to prove his client's innocence. Should the jury side against him, he will be sentenced to several hours of community service. He's already pleaded guilty, but his fate is in their hands.

The format of this courtroom is almost identical to all other courtrooms, except for one thing: Everyone within it, including the jurors, defense, victim advocate, offender and judge, is under the age of 19.

Since 1994, Colonie Youth Court has been meting out justice to first-time youth offenders throughout the community. According to Violet Colydas, director of the Colonie Youth Court, the program began when 40 members of the community decided on a new approach toward first-time offenders. She said the concept of youth court has been around since the late 1970s.

[The community members] had come up with an effective way of dealing with juvenile crime by having them appear before a true jury of people their own age," she said.

One of the most effective aspects of the program is the "embarrassment factor," said Colydas, of the fact that the people hearing the case could be the offender's neighbors or friends. "It's the fact that someone their age is sending them a message that they have done something wrong and need to atone for it."

Colydas said Youth Court does not permit the offender to be tried by classmates and other teens who might not get along with him or her, but, for the most part, the members of Youth Court are able to deal with most first-time-offender cases in the Town of Colonie.

This is how it works: High school-aged teens (mostly from Shaker High School and Colonie Central High School, some home-schooled) are able to enter the courtroom as either the judge, prosecutor, defense, foreperson, clerk or victim advocate after completing 80 hours of training. Jurors can be from grades 7 through 12 and do not require training. According to Colydas, the Youth Court has a jury pool of about 300 youths throughout the community.

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