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December 6, 2011 > Restorative Justice: Santa Clara County's Youth Court

Restorative Justice: Santa Clara County's Youth Court

By Supervisor Dave Cortese

In my State of the County Address, I stated that my audacious goal as a county supervisor is to render Juvenile Hall obsolete. My vision is that we shall transform the Juvenile Justice System, shifting the emphasis from punishment to reform. I believe many of these young children can be shown how to become good-standing members of their community. This is possible even if they have made an early detour into the justice system.

Santa Clara County's Youth Court is a key part of that transformation and offers young offenders a second chance through restorative justice and peer accountability. The roles in a typical court, such as prosecutor, defending attorney and jury, are fulfilled by youth volunteers. The judge and bailiff are the only adults involved. The benefits are two-fold; youth offenders assume responsibility for their behavior and volunteers gain insight into the legal system and possible career opportunities.

The current Juvenile Justice System is largely modeled on the system for adults - arrest, trial and incarceration. This model has its merits for adults, forcing offenders to relate their punishment to their crime. Unfortunately, it is not effective for juvenile offenders who often fail to connect action with consequence. Young offenders may also succumb to the influence of gang members and other serious offenders already incarcerated. The model often leaves them with a negative impression of authority.

Instead, the new Youth Court will provide a positive influence on the young defendants by focusing on restorative justice. The program will show the defendant how his or her actions affect the victim and the community. Sentencing by the peer jury will be designed to hold the offender accountable for their actions while providing a meaningful experience. It could include restitution for the victim, community service, attendance at workshops and participation in future juries. Exposure to the positive aspects of the legal system may also raise their awareness of possible future careers.

It is my hope this program will connect with the youth, while they are young enough, to guide and help them become positive members of society. By being proactive, rather than reactive, the Juvenile Justice System can work to eliminate recidivism for minors and reduce the numbers of juvenile offenders who continue to engage in criminal activities as adults.

The Youth Court held its first session on November 1, 2011 and will be held twice monthly, thereafter. Lincoln Law School of San Jose has provided judges and lawyers on their faculty to train and supervise the youth.

I would like to thank the county departments and community partners that have worked together to realize this vision: the Santa Clara County Probation Department, the Santa Clara County Social Services Agency, East Side Union High School District and Lincoln Law School. I would also like to thank the Central Coast Occupational Center and Andrew Hill High School for providing the student volunteers and the Santa Cruz County Office of Education for providing information on their Teen Peer Court.

For more information on the Youth Court or if you know someone who would be interested in volunteering for a role in the court, please contact me at dave.cortese@bos.sccgov.org or (408) 299-5030.

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