Youth make mistakes. It's part of growing up.
Some mistakes have the potential to impact their life in significant ways. Some mistakes can set a bad precedent, especially those that break the law. And that’s where Youth Court comes in.
Youth Court, offered in Tulsa and Owasso, is a collaborative effort among Youth Services, the Juvenile Bureau, area municipal courts, and the members of the Tulsa County Bar Association. It provides an opportunity for 9th-12th graders to serve as members of a court, giving first-time juvenile offenders an opportunity for a hearing conducted by their peers. Students perform courtroom roles including judge, prosecuting attorney, defense attorney, clerk and bailiff.
When a teen commits a misdemeanor offense, the presiding juvenile court judge has the option to send the case to Youth Court. Typical cases include: shoplifting, petit larceny, curfew violations or vandalism, and other low-level offenses.
It can happen to any adolescent. Aubrey, a Tulsa-area youth, recently had a trial in Youth Court for a minor violation. She was out late with a friend. The friend, who was 18 at the time, was pulled over for a traffic offense, and Aubrey was cited for curfew violation. When she appeared before the judge, she was referred to Youth Court. She was questioned and judged by other youth.
For Aubrey, the Youth Court experience was positive.
“I had to apologize to my dad in front of the court, and I was placed on probation,” she says. “I think it was fair. They were super understanding about the circumstances, and it was much less intimidating because I knew the students I was speaking to instead of adults.”
Aubrey says it’s an experience she’ll remember, which is the point of Youth Court.
“The hope is that the young people will not get further involved with the justice system” says Julie Stilwell, YST coordinator, First Offender and Youth Court programs.
"It's important to have an alternative to traditional prosecutorial juvenile justice," says Julie. "Having a record today isn't the same as it was 20 years ago. It can have a negative impact long after they turn 18. It can hinder them from applying to the military, passing the nursing board, or applying to law school. Small offenses they had when they were 16 come back and bite them, and it isn’t necessarily fair.”
Youth Court came from research. It was shown youth speaking to other youth was more impactful than hearing the same information from adults.
“Though we’ve all been teens, we’re not anymore. We’ve forgotten to a degree,” says Julie. “Kids who are still teens can talk to each other in a way we can’t. They’re in that time of life with each other.”
Youth volunteers, like Jaylee, a senior at Glenpool High School, are vital to the success of Youth Court. Jaylee volunteered as a freshman, and has participated ever since.
“I really enjoy it because I feel like I’m helping kids,” says Jaylee, “especially the younger ones. We help them understand their actions have consequences and even though the decisions they made to get into Youth Court are minor, if they continue on that path, it could be really bad. I feel like I’m helping open their eyes.
“You encourage them. You tell them they can do better, that they don’t have to keep acting up. I think it helps. I really see it with their family members. Youth Court doesn’t just impact the adolescent, but their whole family. The families take it very seriously.”
Julie says most sentences involve a courtroom apology from the youth to their parents.
“Some of the most impactful moments in Youth Court are between the young person and their parent. They’re sitting in the stand, facing their parents and the attorneys. They’re sworn in, and then they explain in detail where they went wrong. Sometimes, new information the parent didn’t know comes out.
“When they walk out of the courtroom, there’s better understanding between both parties. Let’s say this. The car ride home is much better than the one on the way there. Positive family interaction has been shown to be an ingredient that helps adolescents make more positive choices,” says Julie.
“As you’re strengthening families, you’re strengthening a young person’s ability to make better choices when they’re out in the world.”
Youth Court is made possible by a grant from the Oklahoma Bar Association. If you're a Tulsa-area high school student who would like to volunteer for Youth Court, contact Julie Stilwell at firstname.lastname@example.org or 918.382.4477. The next training dates are Oct. 25 and Oct. 27, 6-7:30pm.