Youth Tribunal in SW City Begins this Month

by Alice Cherbonnier
     Criminal behavior can start at a very young age. It’s often a cycle--one day a youth sprays graffiti on a wall; the next, snaps off the aerial on a neighbor’s car. Maybe the anti-social behavior will escalate to car theft, or even to a weapons-related assault.
     If arrested, the youth, depending on age and record, may be sidelined in the state’s overwhelmed juvenile justice system, either confined in a detention center, juvenile facility, or prison. This punishment comes at great cost to all involved.
     In fact, “juvenile justice,” to those caught up in the system as professionals, offenders, victims, and family members, often seems like a cruel oxymoron.
     The innovative new Youth Tribunal program for six “hot spot” communities in Southwest Baltimore is designed to change this system for the better.
      Begins This Month: Set to begin in mid-February after two years of planning and training, the Tribunal will serve the communities of Mill Hill, New Southwest, Boyd-Booth, Fayette Outreach, Franklin Square, and Carrollton Ridge.
     The Tribunal, with primary funding from the Governor’s Office on Crime Prevention, the Mayor’s Coordinating Council on Criminal Justice, the Louis Baer Foundation, and the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is being coordinated by the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA) under the direction of Jean Yahudah, a prime mover in establishing the program.
     According to program coordinator Stephanie Hood, the program is designed to deal with offenders between the ages of eight and 17.
     Operating out of a community service building at 31 South Payson Street, the Tribunal consists of “lawyers” for the defense and prosecution--youth peers from the Southwest area trained by volunteer attorneys. The “jury” consists of trained youth peers; youth also take the roles of court clerk and bailiff.
     The victims are present, too, to tell the offender how the crime has impacted their lives. The judge, however, is really a judge.
     “Every facet of the Tribunal process was decided by youth in the communities,” said Ms. Hood. “They definitely had a say. They all have guidelines, and must work within a certain framework.”
     Making Things Right: “The idea is, the kid has already admitted guilt and has said he or she wants to make it right,” explained Ms. Hood. “We don’t want to lock them up and throw away the key. Just because someone does something once, doesn’t mean it will lead to a lifetime of offenses. We want [offenders] to see there are different ways to handle a problem.”
     The youth jury’s sanctions may include requiring the offender to write a letter of apology, clean up someone’s back yard for a certain time period, or become involved in the community (such as collecting canned goods for the needy or doing beautification projects). A visit to a jail or prison might be among the sanctions.
     During the period following the Tribunal’s decision, or after the results of mediation in the program’s companion Community Conference program, the youth will be counseled and coached by Ms. Hood, and monitored every 15 days or so--much more often than probation officers manage. If the youth does not follow through, the case will be referred back to the regular juvenile justice system.
     Throughout the process, it will be made clear to the youth that the counselor is not an adversary, but someone who wants to help. “We want to convey to the child, ‘What can we do, or what can the community do, to help you become a productive person? How can we help you reach your goals?’”
     How it works. Let’s say Jake, 15, commits a first offense--stealing a $200 jacket from another youth--and is arrested. As with all juvenile offenders, Jake is taken to the Northern District police station. There, the arresting officer informs Jake’s family about the Youth Tribunal option. Jake might also learn about the program from the Department of Juvenile Justice.
     Jake admits the crime and says he wants to make things right with the victim. He is “tried” by the Tribunal, the jury makes its finding and sentencing recommendations, and the judge makes the final ruling on what Jake has to do in order to avoid actual criminal prosecution.
     Jake may even be required to undergo training and find himself serving in some capacity on the Tribunal.
     To assure broad involvement of youth in the communities served by the Tribunal, Ms. Hood will be meeting with community associations and making presentations in the schools.
     Her enthusiasm is evident. “Everyone is waiting for this program,” she said. “They’re excited, supportive. The communities are totally behind it.”
     She expects the Tribunal will handle about 120 cases in its first year of operation. “We’re going to try to do two cases per session, and probably meet twice a week, probably in the evening,” she said.
     If the Tribunal succeeds in deterring youth from committing repeat offenses, it may be replicated in stages throughout the city.

A manual describing the Tribunal’s work will soon be available. To request a copy or learn more about the Tribunal, call 410/539-1369.

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This story was published on Feb. 3, 1999.