By REBECCA ISENHART
NISKAYUNA — Sometimes, to teenagers, the decision between right and wrong looks a lot like a choice between boring and fun. Sometimes, they pick fun. And sometimes, they get caught.
It’s hardly shocking to think that a young person might be tempted to try out a drug, shoplift something inexpensive or tag a building with graffiti.
Any of those would be poor choices, sure — but how far should the consequences follow a kid who’s learned a lesson from the mistake? To college? To a first job? Forever?
In Niskayuna, there’s a group of young people who are dedicated to answering that question. The Niskayuna Youth Court, made up of about 80 high school students and a couple of adult advisers, assigns punishments to minors who have already pleaded guilty to misdemeanor crimes.
Youth Court looks a lot different from regular court. For one thing, it’s run almost entirely by students. Two adults, one from town government and one from the high school, oversee the process. But the prosecution and defense attorneys, judge, clerk and jury are Niskayuna High students aged 18 or younger.
The Youth Court doesn’t hold trials. Its members only conduct sentencing hearings. Kids who have pleaded guilty to minor offenses in regular court can choose to be sentenced by the Youth Court in exchange for the promise of confidentiality, and for a second chance at a clean record. If they complete the punishment without committing any new crimes, the offense essentially disappears from their record.
In exchange, the guilty party gives up the right to an attorney and agrees, in advance, to accept whatever sentence the jury chooses.
This might not sound like a viable model. High school students are notorious for passing any interesting bit of information along the grapevine at incredible speeds. But that’s not an issue for the Niskayuna Youth Court, whose members are very proud of their professionalism.
“At first some of [the defendants] might be nervous about confidentiality,” said Sam Assini, a senior and one of two student directors. “They get surprised with how serious it is.
“No one is worried about getting an unfair sentence,” he added.
There’s another unique social issue: Sometimes the person being sentenced is from a nearby school district, and merely committed a crime in Niskayuna. But more often, the defendant is a Niskayuna High School student, being examined and judged by classmates and sometimes even friends.
But when a social conflict of interest arises, the students are trained to handle it smoothly. It’s a matter of balancing professional and personal interests.
“There will be people you know that you have to go against,” said senior Noah Levine, the other student director. “We have the option of recusing ourselves or switching sides.”
Assini said he once was assigned to prosecute a friend, but didn’t feel he could do a good job. Levine happened to be the defense, and the two switched positions so Assini could keep a clear conscience.
Just like professional attorneys, the students take oaths to do their best for the person they represent, and they give their position everything they’ve got. And, as their faculty adviser Janice Lindsay says, once they walk out the door, they never talk about the experience again.
“A case last year involved a huge number of kids,” she said, recalling an incident that led to a group proceeding with 14 defendants facing the same sentence.
“As a teacher, I hear a lot of stuff,” Lindsay said. “Not one time was that brought up.”
The experience may be as valuable for the students who run the courtroom as the ones who attend it for a sentencing. Assini and Levine both have lawyers and judges in their families and hope to pursue careers in law. They had to receive intensive law training as part of the Youth Court program, and it helped them solidify their professional aspirations.
But they never lose sight of the purpose of Youth Court, which is to help peers get a second chance. They know that, especially for high school kids who have college aspirations, the promise of a clean record is a big deal.
In 2010, researchers from the Center for Community Alternatives surveyed 273 American colleges and universities and learned that “a broad array of convictions are viewed as negative factors in the context of admissions decision-making, including drug and alcohol convictions, misdemeanor convictions and youthful offender adjudications.”
Two-thirds of the schools that responded to the survey collected information about applicants’ criminal history as part of the application process.
There aren’t many rules governing how schools can use criminal records once they have them. In other words, even a small crime on a permanent record can seriously hurt a student’s chances of getting into college.
The object isn’t to let young people get off easy after committing crimes; rather, Youth Court represents a different vision of justice. It’s supposed to build a positive relationship with authority and provide avenues for self-improvement.
“It’s a different kind of punishment,” said Levine. “[Defendants] typically understand this is head and shoulders better than what they’d get in regular court.”
In fact, Assini remembered a time when two students got into a fight. One hired an expensive lawyer, while the other went to Youth Court.
He couldn’t go into detail for privacy reasons, but said the punishment handed down by the traditional court was much tougher.
That’s exactly how Youth Court should operate, Levine said. Typical punishments are fairly lenient assignments like community service, fines, counseling and letters of apology. And of course, once completed, the whole event disappears from public record.
“We are reminding our peers that we’re all part of the same community,” Levine said.