The Anchorage Youth Court is getting old. It’s celebrating it’s 25th birthday this week. The organization has shrunk over the years. The court now hears about 1/3 of the cases it did a decade ago. But it’s goal is the same — to give young people a second chance.
Fourteen-year-old Robert King doesn’t want to be a judge or a lawyer. But in 8th grade he had to take a law studies class.
“I didn’t even really like the law before that. But I got stuck with that class. And then the first day of school I thought, hey this class is cool,” he recalled.
Through the class King learned about the Anchorage Youth Court. If a juvenile is arrested for committing a crime, they can choose to go to a regular court or to be tried by other teenagers. Young people aged 12 to 18 serve as the attorneys and judges. They are trained to weigh different factors when hearing a case and choose a suitable sentence.
King passed the Youth Court Bar Exam, and now he serves as an attorney. He says his role at the court impacts the defendant’s future.
“We’re not like a place that we just send people and they get off lightly and just do some community work service hours. And then not have to have any record. This is serious. We’re giving you your one free chance of not having a conviction record.”
The Youth Court only hears misdemeanor cases of people who have pled no contest. Most cases involve shoplifting or possession of marijuana.
Retired youth court judge Sijo Smith, who is starting college this fall, says the clean record is important when applying for jobs and universities.
“You know that little box that asks if you’ve ever been convicted of a crime? If they complete the sentence, they can check that no. Which is really helpful for them. Because most of the defendants we get, it’s like a one time mistake and they know that it’s wrong and they know that they won’t do it again. So it’s really nice that they get a second chance. Which they get by coming through Youth Court.”
Smith explains that a panel of three judges hears the police report and arguments from both the prosecution and defense. They learn about the crime and about the defendant’s interests and history. She says all of that helps determine the sentence. They also factor in logistics, like if the person can drive. Then the judges explain their decision to the defendant and how the crime has affected the community.
“People who are your own age telling you something often have a lot more impact than adults telling you something,” she said. “For me, especially, you know.”
Youth Court Executive Director Rebecca Koford said the program has shrunk over the years. In the early 2000s they heard about 350 cases per year. Now, it’s down to 120, because juvenile crime rates have dropped by about half in Alaska. Koford said that’s partly because some big stores are no longer prosecuting juveniles. A 2012 Kids Count Alaska report said programs like the Youth Court can also take some credit.
Koford said the program is effective because it emphasizes restorative justice and making the community whole.
“You can’t undo a crime or a bad thing that’s happened, but you can take steps to try to make it right again,” she said. “So it’s about getting the defendant back on track. It’s about getting them to not get into trouble again, to be a contributing member of society, and to feel positively about their future community engagement.”
But the defendants are not the only ones who benefit. Robert King said he’s gained confidence, public speaking skills, and motivation.
“I’ve learned to become a better advocate in my community, about helping, and being a good person in the community.”
Since the court opened, 3,000 young people have volunteered.