The goal of the program is to engage teenagers in the community and give them a positive interaction with the justice system, while possibly preparing them for a future career in law.
“The addition of the youth justice court will help our teens get a sense of responsibility and accountability for their actions, as well as real-life insight into how the justice system functions from the inside,” said Councilman Donovan Richards, a supporter of the program who spoke at a reception for the youth court last week.
Richards said across the city there’s a debate on how to keep people, especially young people, from ending up in jail for low-level offenses.
“If you jump a turnstile at 16 or 17, that should not ruin your life’s outcome,” Richards said.
In addition to giving young people that second chance by not putting them in front of a judge for a low-level offense, it acts as an education for those that may want to pursue a career in law.
High school students that participate are given 8-12 hours of training in the roles of judge, jury, or prosecuting or defense attorney. They will initially conduct mock trials then move onto the real thing, defending, prosecuting and making decisions about the sentencing of their peers.
“One of the things I love about this program is that it’s going to teach and prepare our young people to be lawyers and judges,” Richards said. “We’re getting people ready for the future, for the workforce or getting law degrees.”
The entire program is overseen by Queens Law Associates, one of the funding sources of the program. Richards also allocated $30,000 to the program.
“We’re trying to get these kid back on the right road again,” said Lori Zeno, deputy program director of Queens Law Associates. “This is a court for youth, run by youth. It empowers every kid that takes part in the program.”
Alternatives to court-mandated community service - or even jail time - for low-level offenses such as graffiti are decided by the jury, and include volunteering at the library or attending workshops.
“Some of these offenses that many of these young people are committing should not determine their future,” Richards said. “This is going to put them on the path for a second chance, a second chance at life.”
Beginning in September at the Far Rockaway Teen Library, the volunteers that want to be part of the program – with parental permission – will start adjudicating cases in September.
It’s part of an overall initiative to lower crime on the peninsula that’s been plagued with violence of late.
Richards hopes the youth court, in conjunction with a $1 million gun violence initiative aimed at educating young people, providing jobs and violence interrupters will at least address some of the problems and help get some people on the right path.
Last week, Queens District Attorney Richard Brown announced the arrests of 13 gang members involved in shootings of rival gang members where they allegedly bragged about the incidents before and after on social media. Politicians in the area praised Brown’s efforts to make the arrests.
"Gang violence is not welcome on the streets of the Rockaways and today’s arrest should send a message to anyone looking to start or continue any violence in our neighborhood," said Richards.