"Bethlehem Youth Court is an outstanding program, said Thomas Spina, assistant U.S. Attorney and co-chair of BYC. "The offenders are, for the most part, young people who have made a mistake, but who are otherwise capable of contributing to our society in a very positive way. This program is a way to keep them out of the traditional criminal justice system and provide them with a second chance to make smarter choices in the future."
BYC was founded as part of a three-court initiative called Youth Courts of the Capital District, which also involved Colonie and East Greenbush. Since then, the coalition has dissolved, but Bethlehem and Colonie still have active programs.
Bethlehem has doled out more than 600 cases in the court's 15-year history.
All offenders are also required to return to court to sit on a future jury. It's not uncommon for them to volunteer to be jurors or even members of the court, said Charland.
While jurors don't need any specialized training, the students who play the roles in the courtroom take a 6-week course to prepare them to be lawyers, judges, clerks and advocates. They trade off roles case-to-case.
Every case involves a lot of preparation, said recent high school graduate Jordan Herrington, because while mentors offer help, the students are ultimately in charge and make decisions on how to angle their arguments.
"You have a lot of freedom in what you do," Herrington said. He became involved in the court through his interest in law (his father's on the Bethlehem police force), but he'll also be studying physics at college.
"You have to do a lot of work," agreed sophomore Alisa White, who has every intention of making it to law school.
"Law is one of the things I'm interested in...but it's a great experience either way," she said.