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Youth Court celebrates 15 years

Program offers opportunities for courtroom members, defendants alike

America is often extolled as the land of second chances. In the Town of Bethlehem Court, one program has been quietly living up to that dream from 15 years now, giving youth a chance to put their transgressions behind them.

Bethlehem Youth Court sees about 35 first-time offenders aged eight through 19 every year. Each one stands before a jury of his or her peers to be sentenced to community service hours or other requirements, in a court run by other youth volunteers.

It's a setup that offers benefits all around, said Director Katrina Charland. Volunteers gain valuable experiences, and offenders get a second chance.

That's the key element to the program, is having peer-led sentencing, said Charland. "We have a hearing that looks very much like a trial."

Youth court cases cases are referred by criminal court, family court or probation officers, and sometimes police make the referral after the arrest. The most common offenses that end up at BYC are possession of marijuana or alcohol, criminal mischief and petit larceny.

"We accept cases for low level, nonviolent offenses," Charland said.

For the offenders, coming to youth court is tantamount to an admission of guilt, so every case that comes before the court results in a punishment of some sort. They do get the chance to present their side of the story to the jury just as in a real trial, however, with the assistance of a defense lawyer.

Jurors are left to deliberate privately. Most sentences impose a number of community service hours and often send the offender to classes based on the crime (drug education or anger management seminars, for example). The court can also order that restitution be made, such as in instances of vandalism.

Once a sentence is completed, the record is sealed and dismissed.

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