This Groundbreaking New York Court, Run Entirely By Teenagers, Is Helping Youth Stay Out Of Jail

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We just want to take a moment to thank the members of Brownsville Youth Court in Brooklyn, New York for restoring our faith in humanity, and allowing us once again to be assured that future generations are going to do great things in this world. And we’re pretty sure after you read what this ground of ground-breaking young men and women are doing, you will think the same.

When we think of the prison system in America, we automatically recite the stats that have become staple media fodder. According to the ACLU, with only 5% of the world’s population, the U.S. has more than 20% of the world’s prison population, making us the world’s largest jailer. From 1978 to 2014, our prison population has risen 408%. One in 110 adults are incarcerated in a prison or local jail in the U.S. This marks the highest rate of imprisonment in American history. One in 35 adults are under some form of correctional control, counting prison, jail, parole and probation populations.

It’s no secret there is plenty of racial injustice and socio-economic discrimination happening when it comes to the American prison system. The NAACP reports that nationwide, African-Americans represent 26% of juvenile arrests, 44% of youth who are detained, 46% of the youth who are judicially waived to criminal court, and 58% of the youth admitted to state prisons (Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice).

So what is being done about prison reform? How are law enforcement and government officials working to change the lives of young people so that they don’t fall into a prison system that is designed for them to stay incarcerated for as long as possible?

President Obama has made prison reform one of his hot ticket items in the last year of his presidency, pushing for mandatory minimum sentencing to be changed in order to keep people out of jail. His administration has presented evidence that with a current prison system which costs $80 billion a year to maintain, changing this would also mean making it more cost effective.

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With that amount of money going elsewhere instead of the broken prison system, we could provide universal preschool for every 3-year-old and 4-year-old in America, double the salary of every high school teacher in America, finance new roads, bridges, and airports; job training programs; research and development and eliminate tuition at every one of our public colleges and universities.

“Last year, in fact, America’s crime rate and incarceration rate both went down at the same time, for the first time in 40 years,” states the report from the White House.

How we ensure those rates continue to go down, and that our prisons are not continually filled with youth whose lives are being cut short due to crimes that shouldn’t require exorbitant sentencing times? The Brownsville Youth Court is working to make effective change at the youth level in a profound way.

This court hears low-level for first-time offenders between 10-18, and the difference between all other courts and this one is that the jurors, judges, and attorneys, too, are all kids. The court is a Center for Court Innovation project and is designed to use peer pressure in a positive way to ensure that young people who have committed minor offenses pay back the community and receive the help they need to avoid further involvement in the justice system. The crimes they usually deal with are vandalism, fare evasion, assault and truancy.

This is a brilliant initiative that should be in every state in this country! The Brownsville Youth Court trains teenagers between the ages of 14-18 and each court member is assessed on the quality of their application and interview performance. Each member must do 40 hours of pre-service training on critical thinking, precision questioning, active listening and youth court protocols. In addition, they participate in on-going, intensive youth development and team-building activities to help cultivate their leadership skills.

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The application process is not elitist and does not rely on GPA or a certain type of academic reputation. In fact, many former offenders who have had cases tried through the Brownsville Youth Court are strongly encouraged to apply for positions.

Where do they get their cases from? The Court receives referrals from local schools, the New York City Department of Probation, and/or the New York City Police Department. They are seen as a vital part of redefining the justice system for the youth of Brooklyn, and it is encouraging to see a process designed to see kids succeed.

Although this particular Youth Court is run entirely by teenagers, there are adult staff members who report back to the school, police department or whichever organization referred the case in order to ensure the offenders are carrying out their orders, whether that be community service, writing apology letters, or counseling, for example. Unlike other courts, this Youth Court does NOT send anyone to jail. Instead they actively work to help a young man or woman reform their life and be a proactive and positive part of the community.

According to a report on the Brownsville Youth Court by Fusion, this initiative has made a significant impact on the youth of Brooklyn since its inception.

“More than 2,000 kids are arrested each year all over Brooklyn, most for non-violent offenses. Since launching in 2011, the Brownsville court has heard 353 cases,” writes Cristina Constantini.

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Sharese Crouther is one of the founders of the court and has trained all 156 teenagers who have served in the Brownsville court as the jurors, judges, and attorneys since 2011.

The Brownsville Youth Court is part of the Brownsville Community Justice Center which has become a trailblazing organization in Brooklyn. The young men and women who are part of it get to learn filmmaking skills in order to share powerful messages, organize community outreach events, engage in leadership initiatives and use their creative talents to empower and encourage their youth peers to get involved and give back to society.

If every city in every state had a similar initiative like this, especially in areas which have become notorious for crime, poverty and continuing these cycles generation after generation without any form of help or social reformation from the government, we have no doubt this would have a massive impact on the US prison system.

The Brownsville Youth Court is a beacon of justice not because of how it punishes certain types of crimes or offenses, but because it is showing the rest of society that every young person’s life has worth and potential. We’re not sure about the rest of you, but we would much rather our tax-payer dollars go toward funding powerful programs like this which set up a generation to succeed, rather than continuing to sink money into a system that is clearly broken.

Fusion followed the story of Faith Garrett, an 18 year-old offender from New York who is now attending college in Upstate New York, and says this opportunity would not have been possible if it weren’t for the Brownsville Youth Court. Watch her story below, and see how this court is redefining what justice looks like in America:

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